“Chief” Objections: Racism, Rhetoric and Native American Mascots on College Campuses

The recent success of the University of Illinois at Urbana’s basketball team has distracted attention from a longstanding and contentious issue: the status of school sports mascot Chief Illiniwek. The Chief is one of the last remaining college team mascots modeled after Native Americans – the kind usually portrayed by white students wearing face paint and “traditional” native costumes. The school’s Board of Trustees has debated the fate of the Chief for more than a decade, but a resolution seems no closer. Despite recent statements about the need to retire the Chief, the university continues to delay progress toward this goal. It may be a good time to review this controversy, since doing so may reveal much about the nature of muddled thinking, as well as the baffling attitudes about racial dialogue on modern college campuses.

The Chief has served as the University’s sports mascot for more than 70 years. His main job, like that of similar team symbols, is to rally crowd support during competitive events. He does this by performing “war dance” rituals, complete with wild drumbeats and tomahawk-style chops. The Chief has apparently been very successful in his efforts to stir the blood of Illini fans, since he remains popular long after most of his fellow “Indian” mascots have vanished. Indeed, when intense debates about the racism of Chief symbol started in the mid ‘90s, many Illini alumni defiantly supported their cherished team symbol. In 1995, Lou Liay and Don Dodds of the Alumni Association presented evidence that some alumni threatened to end their annual contributions to the school if the Chief met retirement. Similar threats reportedly persist to the present day, and seemingly provide the main motivation for the university to avoid taking decisive action. Yet, there is reason to wonder what further facets of this issue require analysis before the university can reach a firm conclusion. At this point, all of the arguments in favor of retaining the Chief have already been examined, and all have been found lacking.

Does the Chief Honor Native American Traditions?

Some supporters of the Chief claim that the symbol honors the memory of the Native American Illini tribe who once lived throughout present-day Illinois. Some further argue that modern Native Americans should feel flattered, not offended, by the Chief’s representation of their culture. We should acknowledge that many of those holding this position are sincere in their belief, and hold no real malice toward Native Americans. But we should also admit that the merit of this position depends on its conformity to logic and truth, not simply the intentions of its proponents. We need to clarify the assumptions inherent in this argument before we can determine its validity.

To begin with, we can ask why we should expect members of an ethnic group to be automatically flattered by our representations of their culture. Even if the portrayal is accurate (which the Chief, as we will see, is not), why should the culture feel honored by it? This seems to be a rather patronizing attitude toward a minority culture – one that demands its appreciation for the scraps of esteem we toss its way. Furthermore, it just isn’t true that any representation in any context can legitimately function as a tribute. Even if the university believes the Chief to be an authentic representation of Native American traditions, it is using those traditions as a novelty act to entertain sports fans. How would supporters of the Chief feel if, say, the Holy Eucharist were re-enacted as a halftime skit at the Superbowl (admittedly, a rather boring one), or if a mascot dressed as a Bishop chased young boys around during the seventh inning stretch? Many Christians would doubtless find many reasons to be offended by these antics, but I suggest they’d especially dislike the fact that a symbol they hold sacred is functioning as ribald mass entertainment. They should keep this in mind when arguing that the similar use of tribal traditions should overwhelm Native Americans with gratitude to their great white father.

The argument that the Chief honors Native Americans also assumes that the Chief reflects genuine Illini traditions. Indeed, without this assumption, the entire argument immediately falls apart. But as research by many sociologists and anthropologists has shown, the Chief is an inaccurate symbol of Illini tribal customs on every level. His clothes and actions resemble the stereotypical “Indians” of old Hollywood cowboy movies, not the real traditions of the Illini. Moreover, the popular Western movie image of Indians was loosely based on tribes such as the Lakota of the American plains who had very different cultures from most other tribes, including the Illini. As Joe Gone argues in his classic article about the Chief, “the Illini were Woodlands people – not Plains people – and as a result evidenced an entirely different material culture than the Lakota people whose clothing the current Chief dons (Gone, 1995).” The University of Illinois’ anthropology department elaborates on the the inaccuracy of the Chief by noting:

Archaeological records inform us that the Illini were primarily farmers and people of trade and commerce who lived in settled villages within a loose political confederacy of twelve tribes. The men did not wear war bonnets, nor were they warriors in the sense of having military societies like the Plains tribes. To represent the Illini with a Plains Indian war bonnet, to name them the “fighting Illini,” and to dress the mascot in the military regalia of a Sioux warrior, is therefore totally inaccurate. It is the direct equivalent of representing Italians or Germans with someone dressed in a Scottish kilt and playing the bagpipes (Letter to the Board of Trustees, 2004).

Many proponents of the Chief argue that at least the Chief’s dance is authentic, since it reportedly derives from a Lakota ritual known as “the Devil’s Dance.” But this statement is irrelevant even if true, since as we have seen, Lakota rituals are entirely different from those of the Illini. The “Devil’s Dance” is also not an ancient Native American tradition, but a later invention taught to Illini as part of a scouting project. And whatever its origins, there is no question that the Chief’s dance is at best a hokey modification of real dance traditions, one adapted to the demands of the sports arena. Finally, the Chief’s music bears no resemblance to any current or past Native musical styles. It is, as Joe Gone maintains, “a creation of white America.” It seems relevant to ask if Native Americans should feel honored by a symbol that distorts their cherished traditions in such flagrant fashion, especially when similar symbols have served to stereotype and discriminate against them for so long (Munson, 1997).

The University of Illinois acknowledged these inconsistencies in 1990 by removing all references to the Chief’s authenticity from its official statement about the mascot. Anyone wishing to argue for the Chief’s value as a cultural symbol must therefore honestly confront the fact that neither Native Americans nor the University itself currently consider the Chief to reflect real traditions. If they choose to ignore this information and persist in their arguments, they can only do so through the kind of willful ignorance condemned by Thomas Aquinas – the ignorance preserving our favorite biases from the light of scrutiny.

Are anti-Chief Lobbyists Just Being “Politically Correct” and Overly Sensitive?

Others proponents of the Chief don’t bother to argue for his authenticity, and simply express disgust toward those who lobby for his retirement. For some of these people, the movement to eliminate the Chief is the latest example of “political correctness” run amok in America – another example of oversensitivity to ethnic issues we would be wiser to ignore. According to many of these proponents, the Chief mascot is simply harmless fun, and isn’t worth all the attention and controversy. Why do the anti-Chief groups have to make such a big deal out everything? Shouldn’t they just melt in the pot, instead of trying to stir it?

It is difficult to address this particular objection, since it is really a confluence of unexamined opinions rather than a coherent position. We might begin, however, by asking what the term “political correctness” means, and why we might think of it as harmful. This is more difficult than it may first appear, since it is an ideologically loaded term meaning different things to different people. Still, it is possible to say that political correctness is usually considered a bad thing when it precludes rational discussion of issues, or shelters harmful ideas under the umbrella of politeness or ethnic tolerance. For example, we could plausibly denounce “speech codes” that stifle criticism of Islamic extremists, or prevent discussions of abortion. In these cases, we could maintain that “political correctness” is an arbitrary and hypocritical attempt to shelter students from ideas they’d prefer not to consider, and that this is harmful to a republic like ours. If we have good reasons for criticizing Islamic suicide bombers or holding public debates about abortion, we should be able to do so, even if some students are offended by what they may read or hear in the process. It is wrong to place arbitrary limits on the kinds of discussions we consider legitimate, since doing so limits our ability to understand the issues facing us. For all of these reasons, we can understand why this form of “political correctness” is a detriment.

However, we can also understand how the term “political correctness” might be used as a convenient blanket term to condemn superficially similar ideas, especially when the ideas bear on racial or ethnic issues we’d rather not acknowledge. Ironically, this attempt to short circuit dialogue about race is itself similar to the kind of “political correctness” condemned above. The argument that complaints about the Chief lie on the silly side of political correctness exemplifies this tendency. To recognize this, we need only realize that there is a major difference between a university allowing free discussion of Native American culture on campus, and the same university officially establishing an inaccurate and offensive image of Native Americans as its symbol. The first is an example of free speech in action, while the second is an example of institutionalized racism (Munson, 1997). For the same reason we would condemn a university for sponsoring minstrel shows or using the image of a thick-lipped, Sambo-style African-American as its official mascot, we can condemn the use of a Native American stereotype as a university trademark. Lumping condemnation of active, university-sponsored racism with the “political correctness” that stifles free debate only obscures the real issues. Free speech is primarily important as a component of a free republic, in which all citizens are protected from undue discrimination by public institutions. Condoning a symbol of institutionalized racism in the name of free speech therefore undermines the very values free speech is intended to protect.

What about the opinion that the Chief is a minor issue unworthy of such heated debate? We should note that this position depends on the assumption that the symbols we don’t acknowledge as harmful are truly not harmful – that we can accurately measure the good or harm of any image based on the knowledge we already possess. But this is a dubious position, because most people simply do not make a serious effort to learn about the effects of stereotypes, or empathize with the perspective of cultures other than their own. Most white Americans, for instance, saw nothing wrong with the portrayals of African Americans as grinning simpletons in Hollywood movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They thought the images harmless, and often expressed exasperation with anyone arguing that the images were immoral or dangerous. Yet, there is little doubt that these stereotypes helped white Americans to stomach the civic inequalities faced by blacks, and thus helped to hold a race of human beings in subjugation. Likewise, the image of the Chief is a comforting substitute for images of real Native Americans, and perpetuates widely held misconceptions about Native culture.

We should not forget that the symbol of the Chief, like the earlier stereotypes of blacks, is not just an image imposed upon a minority culture by the dominant culture. It is also an image that directly functioned to give the minority culture its inferior status in the first place. Without the notion that Native Americans were wild, silly people who didn’t deserve the same rights as whites, American settlers would have had a much harder time displacing and killing them. The image of Native Americans as primal, buffoonish savages in newspaper cartoons served this purpose quite nicely – it eased the minds of those who forcibly removed them from their lands, shot them dead, or applauded their demise from infectious diseases spread by white settlers. But hey, that’s no reason for anyone to make such a big deal about the Chief, is it? All that death and sadness is in the past, and we have sporting events right now in need of a comical mascot.

When images reinforce or even form popular opinion in harmful ways, those who recognize the harm have a right to address the issue. Without the efforts of civil rights activists, stereotypes of blacks would still enjoy unquestioned supremacy in the media. What are the chances that public prejudices against Native Americans will vanish if we do not criticize the images that trivialize and simplify their cultural traditions? Indeed, the sentimental attachment that many Illini fans seemingly feel toward the Chief as a symbol of their university – the kind of mawkish obsession that a child feels toward her teddy bear – helps to ensure that few will bother to question the validity of the image and the harm it perpetrates.

The Chief and Modern University Life

So far, we have discussed the arguments made in support of the Chief, and exposed the foggy thinking at their foundation. But it remains to ask how it is even possible for such a stereotypical image as the Chief to cheat death for so long on a modern college campus, where there tends to be so much blustery talk of creating favorable environments for students of all races. In practice, as discussed previously, this concern often expresses itself as the pernicious kind of political correctness. For instance, in an infamous incident at the University of Pennsylvania, Jewish student Eden Jacobowitz faced severe disciplinary action for shouting “Shut up, you water buffalo,” at a group of noisy students outside his dorm window. The students were black, and the school accused Jacobowitz of using the term “water buffalo” as a racial epithet. Jacobowitz repeatedly disavowed any racist intent in his remark, especially since the darkness of night prevented him from even seeing the students who disturbed him. Additionally, he explained that “water buffalo” is a common Jewish slang term for noisy people, and he was able to document this fact through expert testimony. None of this mattered, because the university, hell-bent on punishing “any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes individuals,” wanted to make an example of Jacobowitz. Eventually, after involvement by the ACLU and a great deal of unwanted media attention, the university dropped all charges (Kors and Silvergate, 1998). Still, a similar pattern has occurred at many other public colleges throughout the country. As Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silvergate document in their excellent book The Shadow University, this strain of wrong-minded political correctness has created cultures of oppression on many college campuses, and precludes almost all real racial dialogue in the name of “protecting” students.

And yet, in the face of so much sensitivity about racial issues, the Chief is still alive and kicking. To be sure, some of the reasons for this may stem from student demographics at University of Illinois. The university has more students from small towns in southern Illinois, and such students may have a greater tendency to be annoyed with “liberal” causes such as anti-Chief lobbies. Still, given the current climate on college campuses, the Chief’s stay of execution is surprising. For one thing, the university often makes official statements very similar to those of other colleges, in which it stresses its pursuit of “inclusiveness” and an environment hospitable to all students of all races. For another, it must be aware of that the Chief represents a detriment to this goal. Indeed, a recent report to the university by the Higher Learning Commission emphasized this very point, stating that “it is incumbent upon any public institution, however, to articulate the rationale for its policies, especially when they are in apparent contradiction with each other (Report of a Focused Visit, 2004).”

The fact that the university is a “public institution” raises other issues. In lawsuits about campus persecution of “offensive speech,” courts have repeatedly found that public institutions dependent upon federal money must make every effort to uphold civic freedoms. This means, in cases similar to that of Eden Jacobowitz, that the mere fact that some students take offense at speech does not warrant the punishment of the speaker, since such punishment denies the federally protected right to free speech. But as previously mentioned, the federal guarantee of civic freedom also forbids acts of discrimination by institutions, and the Chief seemingly results from just such an act. This is one way the Chief issue differs from those of similar Native American mascots on professional sports teams such as the Atlanta Braves or Washington Redskins. Although the same racism arguably exists in both cases, public institutions have a special obligation toward their constituents, especially when the institution is a college committed to higher learning. Here again, the Chief’s existence represents a direct contradiction of the university’s primary purpose for existing.

These contradictions are hard to understand, unless we realize that many universities have redesigned themselves as providers of entertainment rather than traditional education. That is, universities try to please the most number of students the greatest amount of the time, and often find principles and ethics just get in the way of this pursuit. As cultural critic Neil Postman shrewdly observes, contemporary education is simply one form of amusement among many others in contemporary society, and the primary value of amusement is the comfort it brings (Postman, 1985). In a brilliant article about this trend, Mark Edmundson notes,

From the start, the contemporary university’s relationship with students has a solicitous, nearly servile tone. As soon as someone enters his junior year in high school, and especially if he’s living in a prosperous zip code, the informational material – the advertising – comes flooding in. Pictures, testimonials, videocassettes, and CD ROMs (some bidden, some not) arrive at the door from colleges all across the country, all trying to capture the student and his tuition cash. The freshman-to-be sees photos of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate phys-ed facilities; of fine dining rooms; of expertly kept sports fields; of orchestras and drama troupes; of students working alone (no overbearing grown-ups in range), peering with high seriousness into computers and microscopes; or of students arrayed outdoors in attractive conversational garlands (Edmundson, 1997).

A corollary to the mission of catering to students is the assumption that students shouldn’t have to think about anything they don’t want to think about, since doing so may make them less willing to ante up their tuition payments. The student is the customer, and the customer is always right.

We can thus see talk of celebrating inclusiveness and diversity as a means to end – a way to make paying students feel comfortable about their purchase. In practice, this implies more than the usual coddling of students and lowering of academic standards – although it certainly does imply that. It also implies that if a group of students decide to accuse someone like Eden Jacobowitz of racism, the university will sacrifice Jacobowitz’s rights for the good of the many. And it implies that if most students at a university support a racist, puerile stereotype, then by God, so does the university, even if it knows full well it is wrong to do so. Here is the key to explaining how one university could willingly tar one of its students as a racist in order to please others, how another could indulge in racism itself in order to please its own students, while both claim to espouse values of liberty and inclusiveness. While many critics rightly complain about the dominance of irrational leftwing thought on college campuses, school policies often seem to be products of convenience rather than ideology.

For evidence that some universities now stand for little more than appeasement of students, we need only review the University of Illinois’ handling of the Chief issue. The university began an “enhanced dialogue process” in 2000, which has entailed solicitation of comments about the Chief from every conceivable constituency at the university. Nearly 5 years later, the University has yet to act upon this avalanche of information. The primary reason for this inertia is polarization within the student population. In a 2004 student government referendum about the Chief in which more than 13,000 students voted, approximately 69 % voted to retain the Chief, with 31% voting for his retirement (Report of a Focused Visit, 2004). Thus, while the majority of the students support the Chief, a very significant minority does not, and the university does not want to risk losing potential dollars from either faction.

The Board of Trustees therefore continues its unending review of constituent comments, and uses ambiguous language when pressed for progress reports. For instance, the Board recently resolved to “publicly celebrate” Native American culture, but did not clarify whether these celebrations would mean for the fate of the Chief (Slezak, 2004). This kind of equivocation thinly disguises the university’s inability to address the issue on its merits, and its primary concern to mollify the greatest possible number of students. As the Higher Learning Commission recently concluded,

The University of Illinois, and especially the Board of Trustees, have modeled behavior that suggests that the issues of minority rights and cultural identity associated with the Chief can be addressed by providing a forum for all interested parties, regardless of the rationale or logical consistency of their arguments…The approach seems to be that if enough votes are taken, the issue can eventually be decided on that basis alone,, without an examination of the merits of the competing opinions. This behavior does not constitute a positive example of dispute resolution nor one that is educationally sound (Report of a Focused Visit, 2004).

Indeed, it does not. It fails to realize that moral issues cannot be resolved by majority vote, or that the eagerness to cater to prevailing opinions runs contrary to the deeper mission of the university. But such failure is the inevitable result of turning education into a form of entertainment.

The glacial pace of the university on this issue is all the more vexing in light of the past successes of other universities in eliminating their Native American mascots. While universities still face myriad contradictions about racial dialogue and student rights, many of them have at least been able to eliminate their “Indian” trademarks. As newspaper columnist Carol Slezak notes, Marquette, St. John’s, and Stanford are just a few of the many colleges to have implemented this change without much incident (Slezak, 2004). The report by the Higher Learning Commission also addresses this issue, stating “the list of institutions who have dealt successfully with similar issues is long, and all have moved forward as a result. The list of those institutions still attempting to defer or avoid the obvious solution is very short (Report of a Focused Visit, 2004).” University of Illinois has the dubious honor of a prominent position on this very short list. Despite widespread negative publicity about the mascot and repeated warning that the Chief tarnishes the respectability of the school, the University continues to waffle for fear of alienating its students. This kind of cheap pragmatism unites the Chief issue with those of speech codes used at other universities, however ideologically opposed the two phenomena may at first appear. Both are spineless attempts to bypass moral standards for majority rule, and pump up profits in the process.

What judgments can be made about the Chief’s supporters, in light of this discussion? It’s not quite right to say that most are hardened racists, since as we have seen, at least some of them honestly believe that the Chief honors Native American tradition. However, if they persist in this mistake despite ample opportunities to correct their ignorance, we can conclude that they care more about a team mascot than they do about the dignity and feelings of their fellow human beings. Likewise, we can reach some justified conclusions about a university leadership that pays lips service to democratic values, but undermines those same values through a symbol it knows to be racist and inaccurate. Such a university cares more about placating students than it does about enlightening them, even when the placation jeopardizes the pursuit of higher learning.

University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle notes that, in the absence of a lawsuit, the Board of Trustees will continue to debate the subject for another ten years (Slezak, 2004). He may just be right about that. But however the Chief issue is eventually resolved, its implications for university life are disheartening. The problems posed by this age of “education as entertainment” will remain long after the Chief hangs up his feathers, if indeed he does.


Edmundson, Mark. (1997). On the uses of a liberal education: I. As lite entertainment. Harper’s, v.295, 39-49.

Gone, Joseph G. (1995). Chief Illiniwek: dignified or damaging? Retrieved on December 4, 2004 from In Whose Honor.

Kors, Charles and Silvergate, Harvey A. (1998). The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. New York: Free Press.

Letter to the Board of Trustees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Anthropology, dated February 17, 1998. Retrieved on December 4, 2004 from University Senate page.

Munson, Barbara E. (1997). Common themes and questions about the use of “Indian” logos. Retrieved on December 4, 2004 from “Indian Mascot & Logo Taskforce”.

Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Entertainment. New York: Penguin.

Report of a Focused Visit (Commission Mandated) to the University of Illinois-Champaign, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, April 26-27, 2004, for The Higher Learning Commission, a Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Slezak, Carol. (2004). Illinois’ leaders must step up, get rid of Chief. Chicago Sun Times, September 7.

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