portrait of Judy Emerson Friday, Feb. 18, 2000

Chief Illiniwek a caricature whose time has passed

Jay Rosenstein never gave a second thought to the appropriateness of Chief Illiniwek when he attended the University of Illinois or later, when he held season tickets to sports events.

With his barefooted dancing, ceremonial headdress, buckskins and studied dignity, Chief Illiniwek embodies the noble savage stereotype from Wild West movies many of us grew up with. "In those times, having a Native American mascot seemed to be a normal thing," said Rosenstein, now a visiting lecturer in the UI Department of Journalism. He'll be an assistant professor this fall.

But times change, and Rosenstein changed after meeting some real Native Americans and thinking more deeply about the issue.

He now considers the mascot -- supporters prefer to call the Chief a "symbol" --"appalling" and indefensible.

"In the year 2000, how can a public institution justify using a racial stereotype as a symbol?" he asked.

ADD ME TO THE growing list of UI alumni who say that such a thing can't be justified.

However, the Chief's supporters continue to try on the grounds that he is a "positive stereotype" and the intent is to honor the native people of Illinois.

You can find Native Americans here and there who like the Chief, but the respected Indian organizations and recognized leaders believe the mascot is demeaning and damaging to their people. Thanks, but no thanks, they say, for this "honor."

There are so many good reasons for getting rid of Illiniwek as Illinois' mascot. The costume is Sioux, not Illini. The Chief's dance is nowhere near authentic, but is, instead, a blend of gymnastics and Hollywood's concept of Indian dancing. The music he dances to is not authentic.

The Chief portrays a Native American caricature of a century ago and adds nothing to cultural understanding among different people today.

The use of the Chief as the university's symbol encourages all kinds of demeaning commercial portrayals of his image -- on toilet paper, in department store ads, on golf balls, on beer mugs and shot glasses.

OTHER FINE UNIVERSITIES, including Marquette, Syracuse, Dartmouth and Stanford, have retired their noble savages after concluding that they were offensive.

Maybe there's hope that UI can redeem itself as an institution with some class. The board of trustees, which has stubbornly supported the outdated mascot, announced this week that it will take public comment on the issue.

The trustees certainly will hear from Rosenstein, who produced a moving documentary on the subject of Native American mascots in 1997 titled "In Whose Honor?" The film focuses on the Chief, but also looks at demeaning portrayals of Native Americans by professional sports organizations, including the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves.

Rosenstein compared the Illiniwek issue to what's happening in South Carolina. "Listen to what people say to defend the Confederate flag and listen to what people say to defend Illiniwek, and you will hear the exact same things," he said.

The flag/The Chief is historic. The flag/The Chief honors a noble tradition. The flag/The Chief is presented in a dignified fashion.

"People who defend Illiniwek need to recognize what they sound like to the rest of the country," Rosenstein said.

Check out the Web site for Rosenstein's documentary at www.inwhosehonor.com.

Judy Emerson's column runs Fridays.