|Controversial Native American mascot retired|
By John Coleman*
March 7, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)
United Methodist Janet E. Super demonstrates against the Cleveland
Indians baseball team for using a Native American image as a mascot. A
UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey.
The recent retirement of Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois’
controversial athletics program mascot, has drawn intense reactions
from both fans and opponents, including affirmation from many Native
American United Methodists.
Trustees of the university, located in Champaign, bowed to pressure
from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which in 2005 barred
teams with nicknames and symbols considered offensive to Native
Americans from hosting or competing in its lucrative postseason
The regulatory body banned Chief Illiniwek as a “hostile and abusive”
image of American Indians and rejected the university’s appeal in 2006,
while allowing the school to continue using the nickname “Fighting
Illini,” named for now-extinct Indian tribes that once populated the
Nearly a dozen NCAA-member schools have retired their Native American
names, symbols and/or mascots since the prohibition, although dozens
more have done so since 1969 when Dartmouth University became the first.
Trustees at United Methodist-related McMurry University in Abilene,
Texas, voted last October to stop calling its teams the Indians.
Chief Illiniwek’s fans, including many United Methodists, ardently
defend his halftime dancing performances at home games as a source and
symbol of intense school pride. Some see him as depicting a proud Native
American warrior and celebrating what they believe are Native American
Thirty-five white students have portrayed the chief since 1926,
wearing imitation buckskin garb with a feathered headdress and facial
paint. Two current portrayers have filed a right-to-free-speech lawsuit
to prevent the university from discontinuing his appearances and to end
NCAA sanctions against the school.
However, many Native Americans and advocates of all races view such
portrayals as exaggerated misrepresentations of Native tradition and
they deplore the disrespectful behaviors that they inspire among some
“These mascots treat Native people as things and give the impression
that they are less than human and less than worthy of respect,” said
Suanne Ware-Diaz, a staff executive of the United Methodist Commission
on Religion and Race in Washington. “They also create a hostile
environment for Native American students on campus and too often lead to
threats and violence.”
Ware-Diaz said she and other Native American staff of Christian
agencies are discussing ways to address threats and violence committed
against Native students at Illinois and other schools facing the mascot
issue. Reports of those incidents have increased since the school
retired the chief on Feb. 21.
“Preliminary research suggests the level of (hate) crime is higher
than (in) comparable schools without Native American mascots,” reported
the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, a respected research and
advocacy organization established in 1984 at Northeastern University in
Boston. According to statistics generated by the U.S. Department of
Justice, Native Americans are four times more likely than any other race
or ethnic group to be victims of violent hate crimes.
“Schools should do away with Native American mascots not just because
their use is demeaning and creates an unsafe environment for people,”
said center director Peter Roby, “but it sends the wrong message about
values, which is inappropriate given the setting it is used in, which is
“Native people have spoken out for years about the damage done by
mascots in sports, media and advertising,” said Ware-Diaz, a member of
the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma.
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher
“Others keep saying it honors our people, but we’ve been telling them
for years that it dishonors us. Chief Illiniwek dances up the football
field and basketball court doing a high-kicking dance that you would
never see done at a powwow by real Indians. Our dances and regalia are
sacred and based in prayer; they are not intended for entertainment and
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, leader of the Illinois Great Rivers
Conference, responded to the Illinois decision by citing resolution 130
passed by the denomination’s 2004 General Conference. It described the
use of Native American names and images in sports as “demeaning and
racist” and urged their abolishment.
“The action taken by the trustees of the University of Illinois
regarding the retirement of Chief Illiniwek is a positive response to
the recommendation passed by the 2004 General Conference of The United
Methodist Church,” said the bishop. “The church’s resolution approved at
that time states, ‘We support efforts throughout our society to replace
such nicknames, mascots and symbols.’”
“I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the Board of Trustees, but it’s the
right thing to do,” said the Rev. Sylvester Weatherall, pastor of Grace
and Kumler United Methodist churches in Springfield, Ill., and chairman
of the conference Commission on Religion and Race.
“For many people, the chief is the face of the university; removing
him means removing the school’s image. But I come down on the side of
our Native American brothers and sisters who have suffered the
consequences of this mascot.”
The controversy ignited in 2001 when the Commission on Religion and
Race gave a $10,000 grant from its Minority Group Self-Determination
Fund to the Illinois chapter of the National Coalition on Racism in
Sports and Media to aid in its campaign to retire Chief Illiniwek. Both
the agency and the conference received irate letters and phone calls
from Illinois fans.
“It’s been wrenching to see church members
pitted against each other over a sports icon. Now, after the (chief’s)
last dance, perhaps the healing can begin.”
—The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin
“Surely there is a consensus among us that racism in all its forms
must be eradicated from our civil and faith communities,” wrote the
bishop and cabinet in a letter to conference members.
The controversy prompted 90 United Methodists to gather at a church
in Champaign that spring to worship, listen and dialogue in a “Talking
Circle.” There they learned about Native American culture, spirituality
and the pain caused by racial stereotypes and misappropriated symbols.
The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, then a local missionary, co-led the
event. Now pastor of the new Dayspring Native American Fellowship, a
United Methodist church outside of Peoria, she remembers the discord and
divisiveness that led Chief Illiniwek supporters to express their
anger, leave churches and withhold offerings.
“The listening event was positive for those who came to listen, but
some came with their agendas and didn’t want to hear us,” she said.
Eastin, like others contacted for reactions to the mascot decision,
was cautious in responding. “This issue has been a very divisive one in
our community and in the church,” she said. “It has challenged us to
listen and to articulate, to be educated about the power of images for
both the chief fans and the Indians. It has forced us to deal with a
wounding past and continued grief, and to ask the question, ‘What is all
this emotion, all this anger about?’
“It’s been wrenching to see church members pitted against each other
over a sports icon,” she added. “Now, after the (chief’s) last dance,
perhaps the healing can begin. For Christians on both sides of this
issue, the love of Jesus Christ must prevail.”
*Coleman is a communications specialist for the General Commission on Religion and Race in Washington, D.C.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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