English Department Statement on Chief Illiniwek

The faculty of the Department of English find Chief Illiniwek an inappropriate symbol or mascot for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While we understand that in the eyes of many supporters of the Chief Illiniwek symbol, the current version of Chief Illiniwek looks like a more respectful image than many other Native American sports mascots, we strongly believe that such stereotypical, oversimplified, and inaccurate representations are out of place in a university environment, where they miseducate the wider public and the members of our own university community, perpetuating a distorted cliché of Indian people and perpetuating the notion that Indian cultures are a plaything for the dominant culture.

We recognize that the intent of many supporters of the Chief Illiniwek symbol is benign. They see the Chief symbol as a dignified image. But as scholars and teachers of English often note, a cultural artifact, whether a novel or a movie or a university symbol, may mean more than its producers intended or understood. Despite the innocent intent of many Illiniwek supporters, the effect and meaning of the Illiniwek symbol is to present a distorted cliché of Indian (Native American) people.

We would not honor African Americans by having a Booker T. Washington imitator provide halftime entertainment; we would not honor Asian Americans by having someone in an emperor costume dance before cheering crowds; we would not honor Latina and Latino Americans by having a César Chavez imitator put on a mariachi costume and dance at athletic events; we would not honor concentration camp victims by having someone dress up as a rabbi and do splits at halftime; and we would not honor Catholics by having a student dress up as a pope and perform with miter and incense. Some members of the University of Illinois community may point to the look of intense solemnity in the current Chief logo, a look that the student playing the Chief sometimes puts on as the halftime crowd stands with arms folded in a sign of respect. But the solemn, silent Indian is yet another demeaning cliché that goes along with the dancing Indian and the Chief Illiniwek keychain with flashing lights for ears that is sold at the Illini Union bookstore. Derogatory clichés often come in the form of contradictory stereotypes.

We believe that the Chief Illiniwek symbol offers the wrong image of this great university. It has made the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign an object of scorn to many people across the nation and across the world, misrepresenting both Indian people and the ideals of this great university. It is time for the Board of Trustees and the wider university community to act with courage and vision, to respect our own constituency of Indian people and of the national and world communities and, like so many other schools and universities, give up our Indian symbol and mascot. It is time for this great university to live up to its commitment to community leadership and retire Chief Illiniwek.

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