Monday, October 17, 2005

Hail Alma Mater, ever so true...

Since the time I was real little up through high school, I went to a most of the U of I Volleyball games and some of the basketball games with my parents and often some family friends. We especially loved the atmosphere of the games at the tiny bandbox Kenny Gym since people would be crammed up into the rafters and the place was both intimate and utterly deafening. I would sit right behind the opposing players and try to throw off their concentration on their jump serves. When they slammed one out or into the net, I would internally take credit, despite knowing deep down that a jump serve is a tough technique to execute and these were hardened athletes who were used to handing a few unruly fans.

At the youngest stages of my sports following, Chief Illiniwek was a major part of these magical experiences. From the time the young, handsome white guy came to our elementary school to talk about him through the many halftimes and between game dances I witnessed, I was enthralled.

But like the Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, for me one day that magic melted. I learned that the Chief wasn't a Native American showcasing an ancient culture. It was just some white guy in a fake suit doing a fake dance that was established and put together by some well-meaning, but not too empathetic folks in the past. It shook me. Whenever I saw him dance from then out and looked around me at the predominantly white crowd, on most of their faces I saw the same looks I saw during other shows of yellowface or minstrelsy. I also saw the empassionated looks on the faces of those who believed in the magic, and I did not pity them or resent them.

Then I witnessed pro- and anti- Chief demostrations, rallies and counter-rallies (which are which I have no idea) and saw the peculiar demographics of each of them with regards to race.

I've lived as a townie, Illinek, U of I student and employee and seen those different perspectives. I've also discussed the Santa issue with dozens of people including my wife and we've come to the conclusion that we never want to lie to our kids about Santa Claus.

It's been a while since I attended a sporting event at the U of I. The last few, my mother and I got up during the Chief dance and in mock disbelief shouted, "Hey, that's not a real Indian! That's a white guy jumping around in a fake Indian suit!" Irreverant, yes, but also basically a carbon-copy of my real experience.

Maybe some will think it's sick or upsetting, but it truly does warm my heart when I watch a game on TV or listen on radio and think of my mother there carrying on the tradition at each game she attends. It's a tradition, I don't expect you to understand, but if you want to discuss it, maybe we can see each other's perspective.

My mother has changed--the proud, powerful woman who had a strong amateur volleyball career of her own well past fifty is now a prouder, more powerful woman who has great pain walking from her car to her seat at the games thanks to a couple of hips that are awaiting transplant surgery. Sometimes I can hear depression in her voice since she is used to being indestructible and unimpeded by hurdles like aging, physical afflictions or sickness.

So it was really uplifted me to hear the joy in her voice as she described the latest Volleyball game she attended. “So I said, ‘That’s just a white guy in a fake Indian suit!’ like always, and then this woman turned around looking disgusted and screamed at me, ‘Chief Illiniwek is the only reason I come to these games!’ ‘Really?’ I asked her. ‘That’s the only reason?’ She looked confused for a minute and then embarrassed and moved to a different section.”

You see, there’s something I feel both sides in this conflict need to be reminded: There is no “Us” and “Them”; there is only “Us”. My mother and I love the University of Illinois at least as much as anyone reading this article. I think this love is characteristic of most of the people on either side of the Chief debate. The difference I feel is that sometimes I feel as though many people have no idea what it is exactly that they love and how the Chief relates to that. My mother and I , we love its students, its faculty, its academic professional, its history and the athletes who represent it in athletics. Most of all we love the positive change it creates in our community and our society.

The Chief is like a bad Santa Claus. His magic is real. The profound way that some of his supporters feel when they witness his dance is real. But he is not what he claims to be. He is not a Native American. He is not performing a Native American dance. He is not honoring some old mystic group of people we all know and love. When we actually stop and look at him, he is just a white kid in a fake Indian suit doing a fake dance spreading stereotypes and occasionally misery for folks who have had enough misery as it is. I buy all of the love for our institution. I buy the love for our childhoods and our memories. I just can’t buy the minstrelsy. I would go for a renaming, “The University of Illinois Dancing Eagle Scouts” or “The University of Illinois Politically Incorrect Folks in Yellowface” or even “The University of Illinois folks who love their institution so much that they will make a mockery of themselves and others to keep up a tradition”, but lets be honest about what the Chief really is. Otherwise, lets get rid of him.

Update: My mother just received the "All-Clear" following her double hip-replacement surgery. Amazingly, it only took several weeks for her to resume her hectic schedule. Of course, we are deeply grateful to the staff and surgery team at Carle. Also, as always, I was floored by how fearless and thoughtfully aggressive she was during the rehab process. She listened to the doctor and nurses' recommendations in terms of what she could and couldn't do and then pushed those guidelines to the limit. She was never gone, but it's great to have her back and stronger than ever.


Blogger Gar said...

Good post. Funny how the mascot issue for non-Native folks is about the importance of "school traditions"... but honestly, given the history of US-Native relations, can something as paltry as school tradition outweigh the dignity and honor of a group of people?

My current university (Seattle U) changed their mascot 6 years ago from "Chieftains" to Red Hawks.

2:46 AM  
Blogger A. Mayuzumi said...

That's a very interesting way to put it, with Santa Claus. I will have to use that.

The spirit IS real. Illini spirit, as is was before the Chief was invented, the combined spirit of the students and workers of the school, IS real, like the spirit of Xmas. And it will survive.

I do think though that we need a new mascot that can unite the fans. If the name "Illini" works for it, that's great, if not, then "Illini" can be an alternative name - there is no rule that organizations can't have more than one handle. I kinda like "Illinisaurs."

But if the plan is to change nothing but stop the Chief's dance, so that there is essentially no mascot, then the mascot by default becomes the zombie Chief, and the divisions will not start to close.

7:34 PM  

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