Tradition is Not Always a Good Thing

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.

Tim beat me to the punch on this one, so go check out his post on History and Education. I don’t want to spill too much virtual ink over this so-called debate. Yes, I’m speaking of “Chief Illiniwek” the sports mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After years of protest, organizing, and reasoning by those opposed to the Chief, it appears that the U of I will finally retire the allegedly “honorable” tradition of sponsoring a white student to dress up as an “Indian” and dance around during sporting events.

I find it fascinating that two white students who have portrayed “The Chief” have filed a lawsuit to keep the university from retiring the Chief on the grounds that it violates their freedom of speech and undermines their future earnings (!). I’m not a lawyer, but I would point out that the retiring of the Chief as an official university symbol leaves the students free to practice their “tradition” on their own, without the backing of a state-funded institution.

The second charge in the lawsuit points to the self-serving aspect of all of this. According to the Chicago Tribune, the lawsuit claims:

“As has been the case for many former students who have portrayed Chief Illiniwek, many valuable employment and career opportunities and professional associations have been opened to those who have had the privilege and honor of portraying Chief Illiniwek.”

Okay, guys, is it an honorable tradition or a career opportunity? The problem is that these students cannot tell the difference. Perhaps it is so because there is nothing more American than making big money by “celebrating” the culture of others. At least Buffalo Bill Cody had the decency, if you can call it that, to cast actual Indian people in the role of themselves.

The students also assert that retiring the Chief will threaten their academic freedom because they get credit from the Music Department for portraying the Chief. Maybe they could pick up one of the excellent classes offered by American Indian Studies, the History Department, or better yet Anthropology?

And finally, I point to the pro-Chief bumper sticker at the head of this post. This, I submit, is the real tradition of the Chief. It is the nasty side of things that the University has refused to discuss. I know this will seem hurtful to those who sincerely love the Chief, but as a historian I cannot avoid the obvious connection.

The bumper sticker evokes, perhaps unconsciously but still quite clearly, George Wallace’s statements about segregation in his 1963 inauguration speech:

“Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”

Supporters of the Chief will say it is ridiculous to assert a connection between supporters of the Chief and supporters of Jim Crow. I reply simply: look in the mirror, and listen to your own words. History is not something you can wish away. Even George Wallace asked for forgiveness.

When the University finally ends its official endorsement of the Chief, the supporters will still be free to carry on their “tradition” in private. No doubt they will do so, and reap all the financial rewards they hope for. All we ask is that the university, as an educational institution, own up to the self-deception at the heart of the Chief worship cult.

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4 Responses to Tradition is Not Always a Good Thing

  1. Tim Lacy says:

    Bravo! Toby, I like your post better than mine (excepting my Office analogy). I totally missed the obvious George Wallace connection. Savvy. – TL

  2. Jeff says:

    I just love how the people who are always saying let the market decide who gets ahead are whining that the state university should financially support them and are looking to the courts for help. Some conservatives.

  3. Prof. Koslow says:

    Students inability to articulate what makes something a tradition is not exclusive to the U of I. FSU students chose the “Seminoles” when the state of Florida transformed it from a women’s liberal arts college into a co-ed university in 1947. According to our school paper, students chose this over the “Crackers, Statesmen, Tarpons, Swamp rats and Tally Whackers.” If only they had chosen the fish. . . In the meantime we now have competing images on campus of Seminole history – Seminole Family put up this Fall and
    the Unconquered Statue that was dedicated in 2003
    (Here is the plaquethat goes with it.) It has been fascinating to come here and hear the discussions about FSU’s appropriation of the Seminole name. The justification nowadays has been that the Seminole Tribe of Florida gives their approval, therefore it is ok to use the name. But it still begs the question, is this really a tradition that can’t be changed? Its current form really stems from the late 1970s. Streaking was also popular around the same time here at FSU but I haven’t seen any calls for keeping up that tradition.

  4. Toby Higbie says:

    Thanks for the links to the FSU Native American statuary. I guess it isn’t too surprising that students have a hard time articulating “tradition.” What bothers me most about these controversies is that administrators, who should know better, let these “traditions” go on. As you say, why not stoke the tradition of running through campus naked?

    Interesting that the FSU homecoming queen used to be crowned in a non-Seminole head-dress. This is very similar to the Chief situation since the Chief’s costume is derived from Sioux traditions, sort of, and not from any historical understanding of the clothing traditions of people who once lived in the Illinois region.

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