Through the Trifocals

The controversy over Chief Illiniwek may be reaching a climax soon. Regardless of the outcome, the University of Illinois may be the biggest loser. <br><br> Illinisports weighs in with his opinion on the controversy and offers a compromise that he hopes can help.

I have never before commented publicly on the issue of Chief Illiniwek. Other than talking to my immediate family, I have kept my thoughts to myself. But since it appears this issue may soon reach a climax, I feel compelled to say my peace.

Sadly, this controversy has degenerated into a no-win scenario. Both sides are intractable in their stubborn refusal to find compromise or consider the needs and feelings of their opponents. Thus, no matter which side claims victory, the other side will feel intense hurt and bitterness that will linger for the forseeable future. And they will use this hurt as motivation to seek revenge against the University of Illinois, to its detriment.

If only there was someone who was respected and could appeal to the good hearts of the leaders of both sides, someone who could bring them together in a spirit of cooperation and good will. If only someone could serve the role of negotiator so that a win-win scenario could ensue. Obviously, it appears that is not to be our destiny, and I apologize for my pessimism.

What I wish to do in this column is make a last-minute appeal to both sides. I know it won't change anything, and I know I will be despised by some members of both sides simply because I didn't favor their side. But I would like to utilize the tactic of finding good and bad in both opposing viewpoints, with the idea that neither side has proved worthy of holding the higher ground. That way, perhaps a few wise individuals will put their own selfishness aside in order to aid the cause of peace and unification. My ultimate goal is to help the University of Illinois survive this crisis because right now, it is the University that will be the biggest loser if no compromise is found.

I have a small amount of Indian blood in my family. It is highly diluted, but it runs strong within me. I have always admired and respected Native Americans, despite all the negative portrayals shown of them on the Western movies and television shows so common when I was young. And I have felt deep hurt at all the abuse Indians have suffered over the years as they were forcibly removed from their homes and placed on "reservations" that were little more than internment camps. They were treated like subhuman animals despite their many talents and proud histories, and that is a sad testament to our legacy as a country.

So I was tremendously excited when I saw my first Illinois football game and witnessed Chief Illiniwek's dance. It wasn't the dance itself that excited me but the tremendous respect and reverence shown toward him by the fans. It was the first time I had ever seen an Indian, real or portrayed, treated in such a respectful way, and my spirit soared at the prospect. All the fans were unified at that moment, and their combined energy was a feeling I will always remember and hold dear. Such unification is increasingly rare in this world, so it is special when it is found, even for just a brief moment.

I was excited for another reason as well. Native Americans believe they are guided by ancestors who have died but remain nearby. Since the Illini Indians are now extinct on the physical plane, it was special to me to believe that the University of Illinois was representing a whole race of people who no longer exist in body but who may still reside in our immediate vicinity on some other level. I liked the idea that somehow the Illini Indians had a vested interest in happenings on their land.

My family's religion taught me to believe we live on beyond our bodies, in a manner similar to Indian beliefs, and the Chief Illiniwek mythology is compatible with that belief system. Chief Illiniwek is a member of the Marching Illini. The description of his dance begins with a statement that he is the "Spirit" of the Illini. In other words, he is the ghostly representation of all Illini who have come before us. He hides within the band, as if hidden within a fog or mist, before breaking into visibility for a brief moment to give strength to all living Illini and then fading back into the mist.

To me, this is analogous to the story from Star Wars where Obiwan Kenobi is said to become all-powerful once his body is killed. Imagine if you will, all Illini alumni and fans who have lived and died before us coming together en masse within the embodiment of Chief Illiniwek to give us the strength and courage to carry on. What a powerful image! With everyone's combined energy, we become relatively invincible, not just for the game at hand but throughout our lives. No other school's mascot or symbol can possibly represent anything more uplifting or fulfilling than that.

Unfortunately, the ideal is not always the real. Over time, crass commercialization has crept into the storyline. Early on, cariacatures of Indians were drawn and placed on programs, tickets, and pennants, both by us and our opponents. And each depiction was more extreme and unflattering than the last.

One image found on numerous souvenirs (from the 1940's I believe) shows an Indian with a proboscus rather than a nose. It reminds of the World War II picture of Killroy, whose nose hung down over a sign that said "Killroy was here." I can understand why some Native Americans might take offense. Such cariacatures were exaggerations and thus not reflective of the humanity of Indians.

Even after a circular, face-forward image of a proud, human-looking Chief became the authorized symbol for commercial products, its use was quickly utilized to excess. Suddenly, Chief images appeared on every type of souvenir that could possibly be sold to any alumnus or fan. The Chief adorned everything from beer mugs to toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. Loud complaints from some Native Americans ended the most extreme practices, but damage had been done that lingers today.

I really don't know if Chief opponents represent the majority of Native Americans, but I do know they are deeply offended by him. Right or wrong, they are offended. I remember one woman who was ridiculed during her formative years because she was a "half-breed". Kids can be cruel, and she suffered the agony of that cruelty.

As an accomplished painter, she represented that suffering in numerous paintings. Upon seeing them, it is clear that the pain she experienced when young continues to haunt her today. I don't know if it is right or fair that one person's agony should decide an issue as big as the Chief, but there is no doubt that some people are pained by his existence.

In general, most opponents of the Chief complain that use of an Indian Chief and the outfit he wears goes against their religious beliefs. They say the breastplate, headdress and other items should be worn only by Indians in the practice of their spirituality. And they say the Chief's dance is a bastardization of a religious dance that should be limited to those who practice their spirituality. These are valid arguments for those who share these beliefs and should be respected in the same way that other religions are respected.

Ironically, it was Chief Fool's Crow of the Sioux who donated the present Chief regalia to the University of Illinois. And it was the Sioux who taught the dance to the different individuals who depicted Chief Illiniwek during their college years. Some Chief supporters site this as evidence that Indians support the U of I in its efforts to keep the Chief. Those who oppose the Chief claim that Fool's Crow did not represent the majority of Indians and had no right to share the regalia with non-Indians.

I have read that Indian tribes used to bring their entire populations to important meetings, including treaties with the US government. They believed that everyone had an equal voice and had a right to be represented at any major decision that effected them all. This has not happened in the case of the fight about Chief Illiniwek. A number of tribes have now come out in support of the Chief opponents, but many of their membership are at the most ambivalent about the situation. And some could care less what the U of I decides. It is impossible to know whether Chief opponents represent the majority of Indians or not, but even if it is a minority, it has a right to be heard.

My famiIy and I were on a vacation out West a few years ago, and we were on our way to Yellowstone Park by way of Idaho. We stopped at an Indian reservation trading post along the way to use the facilities. In the bathroom was a spray can that showed the profile of an Indian chief and was called Chief Air Freshener. It was manufactured in New Jersey. Clearly, the Indians who ran the trading post were not offended by such a cariacature or name. Some opponents of the Chief might snub their noses and claim these other Indians were not worthy to be a part of the discussion, but I can't see the difference.

A number of Black people are supportive of Chief opponents, and I can understand why. After all, older Black people have strong memories of how they were mistreated in the past. They were not given equal rights, and they were treated like second-class citizens, just like the Indians. They can feel it strongly when someone acts in an unequal way toward a minority. They can empathize with the pain and suffering, and they are quick to come to the aid of that minority.

Unfortunately, there has been some misuse of this support as well, and it has hurt the cause of Chief opponents. A few years ago, some naive but highly motivated individuals held their own symposium where they formally retired the Chief and the name "Fighting Illini". They then voted on a new nickname for University of Illinois athletic teams, Prairie Fire.

I am sure they meant well, and I imagine they had great fun and felt great accomplishment that weekend. However, they ignored the feelings and needs of most Illini supporters. And they had no legal authority to make any changes. All their actions did was to raise the anger of Chief supporters and the UI Administration, further polarizing an already tense situation.

State legislator Emil Brown recently made a public pronouncement that he was in favor of attaching the Chief issue to UI budgetary considerations. This is certainly one possible way of putting pressure on the UI to eliminate the chief, but Mr. Brown's actions smelled of partisan politics. One can only speculate whether he had any ulterior motives or desire to use the Chief issue as leverage for some other favored project. But again, it created an adversarial relationship that further polarized the issue. No higher ground was being sought, at least in my opinion.

My wife and I attend UI women's basketball and volleyball games, and three or four anti-Chief protestors have been frequent protestors at these events. At one basketball game, one of the protestors was arrested and removed from the premises for swearing and then resisting arrest. I did not witness this particular event, but I do know that public descriptions of it have been one-sided.

I have no doubt that this one protestor used vulgarity in his remarks among the women and children in his vicinity and then resisted his removal from Assembly Hall. However, these protesters were subjected to similar vulgarity every day they protested. Pro-Chief fans were never arrested or even warned for their vulgarity, and they were certainly never asked to leave the building.

I am personally acquainted with a couple of the policemen who work those games, and one of them was emotionally charged and itching for an opportunity to confront the anti-Chief people. Anticipating a problem is a good way to guarantee a problem. The arrest that day gave anti-Chief forces extra reason to fight for their cause. I cannot say whether it was deserved or not, but I can understand why some might believe the action was biased toward those who favor the Chief.

Perhaps the most polarizing action of recent times was the anti-Chief sit-in choreographed by Chancellor Nancy Cantor at the UI Administration building. It served the purpose intended of getting the Chief issue on the June, 2004, agenda of the UI Board of Trustees, and it gave anti-Chief forces a voice with other prominent people who might aid their cause. But it is highly unlikely that pro-Chief people would have been treated with such kindness for their disruptive behavior without being arrested and removed from the premises. Again, a polarizing act that did as much harm as good.

As an aside, I wish to add some speculation that may be completely erroneous. For a long while now, I have heard rumors that some higher-ups in the UI administration were tired of all the bad publicity and potential threat to their ability to receive lucrative financial contributions from alumni. In an indirect style similar to what I described in an earlier column about the NCAA, it wouldn't surprise me if it was discovered that Nancy Cantor was hired as Chancellor specifically to eliminate the Chief.

No one at the UI wanted to be blamed for removing the Chief, so perhaps a sacrificial lamb was needed. Nancy Cantor's appointment was a surprise to me, given the UI's past tendencies. After all, most previous administrators have been rather conservative and were not real vocal about increasing diversity.

Nancy Cantor is basically opposite of previous hires, and increasing diversity is one of her main priorities. She has gender, religious, university affiliation, and political issues, any one of which might normally have eliminated her from consideration for so important a role. I will always wonder if she was chosen to be a lightning rod, absorbing all the vitriolity of angry Chief loyalists while doing the dirty work of eliminating the Chief. If so, she might serve as a buffer to protect other UI administrators. Again, I have no proof of this, but I will always wonder what went on behind the scenes.

It is extremely difficult to see into a person's heart to discover how he or she really feels about things. If we could open the window to people's hearts, I am certain we would discover that many Illini fans and Chief supporters are respectful of Indians and would never wish to do harm to them. Their hearts serve the ideal, and they wish to maintain that ideal in their support of their university.

However, not all Illini fans are even aware of the ideal, and looking within their hearts might find them biased against Native Americans. While they might never publicly display any bigotry, and they would never admit to any bias, some act as if they feel superior to those who are offended by the Chief. Opponents of the Chief site these attitudes as proof of their contentions.

Unfortunately, the pro-Chief forces, and the University itself, have done little to demonstrate their empathy and understanding for the needs of Native Americans. I believe this entire problem could have been resolved 10-15 years ago if only the U of I had bitten the bullet and accepted the responsibility for improving relations with Indians. If they had done so, we might now have no fear of losing Chief Illiniwek.

Florida State University has a licensing agreement with the Seminole Indians to allow them to use the Seminole name and portrayal for their sports teams. I don't know the precise details, but I am certain the Seminole Indians receive some kind of remuneration for the use of their name. We could have done the same thing with the Miami Indians, who now reside in Oklahoma and are the closest living relatives to the Illini Indians of Central Illinois.

We could have set up a scholarship fund for needy Indians. We could have established an Indian cultural center and Native American curriculum that would teach the true history and culture of the Indians who lived on American soil long before it was called America. We could have shared some of the proceeds of the sale of items utilizing the Indian symbol with the Miami tribe. There is no doubt in my mind we could have come to an equitable and productive agreement that would have benefitted both sides.

More than likely, the UI didn't do this for two selfish, childish reasons. One, no one was willing to show leadership to make a tough decision when avoidance could be chosen as an alternative. The threat of losing the Chief was in its infancy, and denial superceded foresight. And probably the more important reason was the money. Why spend money if it wasn't necessary? Why share if we can keep it all to ourselves? If there were more altruistic reasons for not considering a licensing agreement, I am not aware of them.

Pro-Chief forces, to my knowledge, have never come out in support of any policy that would demonstrate a concern for the needs of Native Americans. They have never publicly advocated a licensing agreement, scholarships, academic curricula, or any other program that could help prove to Native Americans and others that we are sincere in wishing to show reverence to Indians with the use of Chief Illiniwek as a symbol for the UI. We can say we treat the Chief with respect, and most of us truly do during his dance, but we don't prove it at any other time.

The biggest single argument that Chief supporters use to defend a continuance of the Chief and his dance is tradition. Since 1926, Chief Illiniwek has been a tradition at football and basketball games, and many people don't wish to see any change. I can understand completely the importance of tradition and its powerful effect on the psyche of those who depend on tradition. However, it is perhaps the absolute worst reason to keep the Chief.

After all, if we followed tradition in this country, we would still have slavery. Only those in power would have equal rights, and all others would be treated as less equal. That was the custom for many people for many years. However, it wasn't necessarily right or fair. Slavery was a tradition that needed to be changed, and it took a Civil War to change it. Unequal treatment for Blacks and other minorities took much longer to change because traditions die hard. But these were traditions that literally tore the US apart until they were eliminated.

Right now, the tradition of Chief Illiniwek is tearing the University of Illinois apart. Everyone is becoming polarized. You are either "with us or against us." Faculty, students, alumni and fans are all split into opposing camps. No tradition that divides people so completely is serving the purpose intended.

Another main rationale used by the pro-Chief people is their stated threat to withhold support, financial and otherwise, from the University of Illinois should the Chief be eliminated. Extortion may be an effective threat, but it is certainly not a mature, righteous tactic. Chief supporters who use it are not proving themselves superior to their opponents, who use a similar tactic to eliminate the Chief. And extortion does nothing to further the notion that the pro-Chief forces hold a deep reverence for Indians. Indeed, it does the opposite by saying that pro-Chief people must have their way regardless of the needs of their opponents.

I find it funny how some have concluded the Chief controversy is a political battle between Conservatives and Liberals. It is true that Conservatives often favor tradition, and it is also true that some Liberals, being "bleeding hearts", reach out to support the downtrodden. But a number of the original Indian instigators of the attack on Chief Illiniwek are at least as conservative as their opponents. I have met some of them personally, and they are as conservative as anyone. In that sense, it could be argued that this controversy at least began as a battle between conservatives and conservatives. Both sides have much more in common than either realizes, and it is likely this similarity that has bred contempt.

Thus, I believe the final decision on Chief Illiniwek should rest with the "silent majority", who represent a much larger percentage of the overall population than either Conservatives or Liberals. I know some Liberals who support the Chief, and I know some Conservatives who oppose the Chief. It is these people who have some ability to see both sides of the argument and desire to find a solution with which both sides can live. It probably won't happen this way simply because the silent tend to remain silent, but it would be nice if it could. And it is absolutely the only way that destruction wouldn't be an expected sequela to a final solution.

Based on compromises described by others, let me share just some solutions with which I could live. First of all, I think the UI should, without question and regardless whether we keep the Chief, reach out to assist worthy Native American students and provide scholarship assistance and programs to demonstrate our desire to treat them with dignity and respect. Second, we should seek a licensing agreement with the Miami Indians if one is possible. If not, then we will at least know we did all we could to save the Chief in its present format.

Then, we should keep the name Illini. It is an abbreviation for our state name of Illinois, so it does not steal any dignity from the Illini Indians. Roger Plummer gave the same conclusion in his lengthy report to the UI Board of Trustees. Opponents of the Chief should come to grips with this and allow it as part of a compromise solution. After all, they are giving up very little by doing so.

Ultimately, I believe the Marching Illini should continue their "3-in-1" halftime performance that includes the traditional three songs of "We Are Marching For Dear Old Illini", the Chief dance music, and "Hail to the Orange". However, I think one of two variations on the Chief dance could provide a compromise solution that both sides could eventually learn to accept.

One, since the Chief is a symbol representing ALL Illini alumni, his outfit could be modified to include aspects from many walks of life, and not just Native American. A competent fashion designer could make the adjustments that could help him retain a dignified air without borrowing too much from Indian tradition.

Then, his dance could be continued as it is. The present dance is a variation of a "Fancy Dance" that tells a specific story. Indians and a number of other tribal cultures around the world create dances to tell stories important to their peoples. That is what the Chief Illiniwek dance does, and we as a group have as much right to develop and use our own dance as anyone else.

The other dance variation that I would find acceptable is to make Chief Illiniwek into what he truly represents...a Spirit. Thus, he would become invisible to the naked eye. It could be a part of Illini lore that Chief Illiniwek can only be felt with the heart. He is what each individual believes him to be and represents the appearance of what each individual finds is ideal within his own nature.

That way, he "looks" exactly as each one of us wishes him to look and represents exactly what we want him to represent as he "dances" to the Chief music. We would stand in reverence as we envision him prancing down the field ahead of the Marching Illini. He still might be an Indian to some, but he would be much more than just that. Instead of claiming the death of Chief Illiniwek, we could describe him as being transformed into a perfected being who can never be destroyed or violated again. In this way, he would be, with just a little imagination on our parts, even more than he is now.

Fans of other schools would never understand, but we would have something truly unique and special. And it could remain a rallying cry to aid us, not just in sporting events, but in all aspects of our lives. We could use an orange block "I" as our preferred symbol for commercial products, but we would use no visible symbol for the Chief. We could even learn to take pride in our unqueness, even more than we do now. Which would you rather be, some furry animal or an invincible Spirit?

Unfortunately, these and other compromise solutions may never be considered, as neither side appears willing to rest until one side is destroyed for all time to come. Eventually, the anti-Chief forces will win simply because they will, little by little, add to their support while pro-Chief support will continue to wane.

After all, there is no argument that pro-Chief forces have used in the past that has served to increase understanding of the positive value of the Chief. Non-Illini have no way of understanding the feelings the Chief can stir within Illini hearts because they haven't experienced it. But anti-Chief people have found a number of tactics that have aided their cause, and they are continuing to do so.

If and when the day comes that the UI Board of Trustees chooses to terminate Chief Illiniwek, it will be a permanent conclusion. After all, they will just be glad it is over and can go back to the business of educating college students. Pro-Chief laments will fall on deaf ears as they will be seen as biased against Native Americans, whether it is true or not. And the Illini Tribe will again become extinct.

What I fear most at that time is the reaction of those most vehement against losing the Chief. They have threatened to stop attending athletic events and stop supporting athletics financially. That would be a terrible mistake, in my opinion.

The UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has never been allowed involvement in the decisions that affect Chief Illiniwek's continued use. Attacking them would be tantamount to destroying the very reason Chief Illiniwek was created in the first place. If anything, the pro-Chief people should feel the need to rally around the DIA to help it out during difficult times. That is, I believe they should be supportive if they have been honest up to now about their reverence for the Chief and all he represents.

If there is anyone to blame, it is those UI administrators who have dragged their feet in the past and failed to make decisions that could have prevented the no-win scenario in which we now find ourselves. Unfortunately, most of them have now retired or moved to other jobs elsewhere. I know the need for vengence will be strong if the Chief is lost, but at least those who feel such negativity may be able finally to empathize with the anti-Chief people. Their pain will be as profound as the pain claimed by those Native Americans who now oppose the Chief.

I will be sad regardless of upcoming Board of Trustees decisions unless a compromise is found. I don't like to see any group of people feel like total losers in a process where both sides' arguments have at least some merit. And I especially don't like it when conscious, considerate minds could have arrived at acceptable conclusions before it degenerated into an us-verses-them catfight.

As I said earlier, I don't expect to see a compromise solution. But the worst experiences of my life have come when I lamented what I could have done and didn't. So right or wrong, I have now expressed my personal opinion, and it is the best I can do. I will try to live with the consequences, and I hope everyone else can as well.

In my view, we are all partly to blame for our present problems, so we must all work together for a solution. Have you done all you can do?

Go Illini!

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