Monday, August 08, 2005

The Fighting Nonentities

It’s a telling indication of my level of concern with the current debate over university mascots that my first reaction when the subject arises is annoyance. Not over the issue itself, but due to the predictable commentary that will soon follow. Every time this issue hits the papers someone responds in a manner that he considers to be the height of cleverness by stating with shrieking sarcasm that they had better get rid of the Fighting Irish and the Blue Devils as well or we’re going to offend the Sons of Erin and Satan respectively. Or something along those lines. Yes, there are parallels that can be drawn between the use of Indian mascots and others that are not the subject of debate, but those parallels are already well established and sarcasm requires some degree of originality to be biting. Besides, such ramblings only serve to put PETA on notice that college athletics might be another good place to stick their beaks.

The NCAA is certainly within their rights to ban the use of Indian-related nicknames and symbols during their sponsored events. One aspect of their decision that was somewhat troubling was the waiver granted to the University of North Carolina-Pembroke due to the high number of American Indians that the school admits for enrollment. Either the use of Indians as mascots is offensive or it isn’t. I’m sure that an educational and research institution the size of the University of Illinois can point to many good deeds it has turned on behalf of or to the benefit of Indians. If Chief Illiniwek is a disparaging symbol, at what level must these good deeds accumulate before they are redeemable for a free pass from those so desperately offended. Contributing annually to the NAACP or the JDL doesn’t buy one license to throw about racial or anti-Semitic slurs, so if the U of I’s chief is distasteful, then so is UNC-P’s brave.

For better or worse, I suspect that Chief Illiniwek’s days are numbered on campus, as are any vestiges of headdresses and war whoops. But I see no reason to part with the Illini nickname, fighting or otherwise. For many, perhaps most, the word "Illini" is much more closely associated with the university than it is to the erstwhile tribe. Once the meaning of a word evolves in the public lexicon, the original meaning ceases to hold dominion over its use. Just as the word “spam” is more likely to evoke feelings of frustration rather than nausea to a generation not raised on the mysterious luncheon meat, the word “Illini” is more closely associated with three-pointers than a once proud confederacy of tribes. From a historical perspective this is unfortunate. But if the Fighting Illini are sent packing, then what little awareness the general public has of these native people will fade even further.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many people outside the state would guess that Illini is a sort of abbreviation of Illinois, just as Indy is short for Indianapolis. If the chief skips off to the big buffalo hunt in the sky, then that is the likely fate of the word. At that point, the school will then be free to adopt any non-threatening and non-offensive character it likes to serve as its mascot. Good luck to them.


Dan M. said...

Yes, lets get rid of all indian references that are "offensive" so that all we have left to remember them by are their fantastic casinos! What a great legacy that is.

I liken this situation to the smokers vs. anti-smokers debate. As a non-smoker I often think to myself, "what is it that is not reaching their brains? Can they not see that it is wrong to harm others?" In this case I absolutely cannot see why they are offended by UofI's "Chief" or the use of the term "Illini." What are they seeing that 99% of the rational human beings on the planet are missing?

JeromeProphet said...

Don't you see!

Let's not look at this in a negative way, let's look at this as a giant opportunity.

Instead of the fighting Illini, why not The whoop your asses?

I mean no disrespect, but all those towns, cities, states, hills, mountains, creeks, rivers, etc. with Indian names - that's old school - we can rename them all!

In fact we could start deleting any reference to American Indians from all history, and text books - and sell of the reservations and casinos.

That way no one will ever bitch about this subject ever again.

And if someone comes up, and says, hey I am an american indian, you have no right to do this - we can just say - american indian, what's an american indian?