The controversy over Chief Illiniwek, the former University of Illinois mascot banned by the NCAA a decade ago, was "back with a vengeance" last Friday, as the Champaign-Urbana school's homecoming parade was disrupted by anti-chief protesters, and an informal chief was forced to flee under police escort.
Looking over the controversy in my column, I have to admit it didn't bring out the best in me. Good Clevelander—and lifelong Chief Wahoo fan—I backed the chief for years, promoting the idea that history belongs to everyone and anyone can take it and put it to whatever uses they please. History isn't "owned" by the group that comprises it now.
But that view lacked empathy, and while I rarely wince at columns I've written in the past, I wince at those. Because I changed my mind, eventually, with some guidance by my colleague Steve Patterson, who is part Native-American, I came to realize I was making a category error: the chief isn't a creative character facing criticism: he's a brand logo whose time has passed.
Even the columns where I get behind scrapping the chief have a certain edge to them—I got a lot of harsh flack from activists, and tended to bite back. Three such moments:
Get rid of Chief Illiniwek. It's enough already. I like tradition as much as the next guy, and hate to see the grim Native American activists and their anti-U.S. view of history win. But when you get a major national college accrediting body saying that the Chief might undermine the value of a University of Illinois education, it's time to cut the cord.
He's a mascot. He's supposed to be fun, not be this source of constant dreary conflict year in and year out. Sure, he's a tradition, but pick anything else—an apple, a cowboy, a shoe— and in 100 years that will be the tradition.
You think if people stopped buying Planter's peanuts, turned off by its lying, dandified Mr. Peanut (it just struck me—the top hat, the spats, the monocle; he's gay, isn't he?), that Planter's wouldn't dump him in a moment and create Gomer Goober or whatever? Of course. The U. of I. is a business too, and when a mascot turns too many people off, it's time to call Leo Burnett and order up a new one.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 27, 2004
Activists often have an uncanny way of perpetuating the very stereotypes they claim to be fighting, and unwittingly presenting a more negative image of their group than the supposed slurs they are fighting against.
Take Native Americans outraged over Chief Illiniwek, the beleaguered Indian mascot of the University of Illinois.
Now, I've gone on record in the past saying that the university should dump the chief, not out of any particular concern for the bruised feelings of activists—a vindictive, joyless lot, I can tell you, based on personal experience. But just because the chief has become a perennial liability, as a logo, and when your brand is dragging business down instead of promoting it, it's time to get rid of the mascot or at the very least take the kerchief off of Aunt Jemimah.
Myself, I think they should change the chief into a cowboy: Cowboy Bob. He could do a lariat demonstration before games. The kids would love it.
Though getting rid of the chief will help the image of Native Americans. Not by removing the dance, which strikes me as rather benign. But rather by muting the protests, which inevitably cast Indians in a harsher light than the thing they are complaining about.
The grandson of the chief who sold his ceremonial outfit to the university is now demanding they give it back, even though the school paid $3,500 for it. There is an obvious echo of the old cliche about . . . you know what, I'm not even going to go there.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 21, 2007
OK, I'll say it: There was always something a little, um, odd about the guys on the pep squad. I know it's athletic, in a way, and I know they get free tickets, and can show school spirit, and hang out with the female cheerleaders, if they want to. . . .
But still . . .
And these two guys at the University of Illinois, trying to preserve their right to dress up like Chief Illiniwek by filing a lawsuit, claiming that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees their right to prance around before athletic events . . .
That's just crazy.
I don't have a right to—oh—dress as Cowboy Bob, the mascot I hope will replace Chief Illiniwek, and demonstrate my skill at lariat twirling before games. Someone has to control what goes on at games, and that someone is the school.
Chief Illiniwek—whom I supported for years—has become a burden, and a surreal, pointless issue that only gets stranger and stranger. If he is retired after Wednesday—as it seems he will be—then we may all say together: "At last!"
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 18, 2007