Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), former presidential candidate, wants to abolish Chief Illiniwek, mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Chief, a student who performs a war dance at halftime during UI football and basketball games, has recently been denounced by campus malcontents, on the usual grounds (“racism,” etc.). Simon, attending the “36th Annual American Indian Pow wow” in Chicago, lent his signature to a petition to eliminate the Chief and “all mascots and emblems which rein force stereotypes of Native Americans.”

Similar campaigns have done in In dian symbols at Dartmouth and Stan ford. Overwhelming local and alumni sentiment has saved the Chief from that fate; he has drawn the support of Governor Jim Thompson, Senator Alan Dixon, and an Illinois House resolution, and the UI has announced that he will continue to dance. But, being a university, the UI now feels compelled to work overtime to establish its “sensitivity.” Chancellor Morton Weir, declaring his desire for “education, awareness, understanding,” has pledged to seek out “inappropriate” Indian representations on campus. The UI quickly eliminated Squanto, emblem of the agronomy department ( the caricature—cartoonists, beware—was said to have a suspiciously hooked nose), and is targeting Chief based merchandise; the UI acknowledges that it has no power over private businesses, but is urging their “cooperation.” A press release promises new efforts to invite Indian speakers, recruit Indian students, hold Indian film festivals, and perhaps sponsor a powwow (“an intertribal cultural ritual”).

For all of this, it’s not clear just who is insulted by the Chief. Most people who have seen his performance consider him a tribute to the American Indian. His costume (presented by the Oglala Sioux) and dance are elaborate and dignified; he does not clown around with the cheerleaders. No thorough canvas of Indians has been done, but both the University and the press have found their reaction split, with many finding it (as one Anthony Whirlwind Horse says) “kind of embarrassing . . . because people are making such an issue out of nothing.” In the Dartmouth case, a survey of 151 tribal chiefs found 125 supported the school’s Indian symbol. Nevertheless, a UI campus group called Native American Students for Progress, one dozen strong, called at one point for Chancellor Weir’s resignation for failure “to meet with campus representatives of the Native American population” (i.e., themselves). 

The public has been refreshingly unapologetic about its affection for the UI symbol. The newspaper letters sections and talk-shows have been filled with comments like “just leave our traditions alone” and “doesn’t a senator have anything better to do?” Simon, for his part, probably wishes he’d never stuck in his oar. In signing the petition, he may have thought he was simply observing a ritual of liberal ism, the de rigeur denunciation of American racism. Instead, though scheduled to accept a 4-H award at halftime during the nationally televised Illinois-Michigan football game, he had to receive it in a private ceremony elsewhere or face the prospect of being booed by over 70,000 fans. As it was, ABC covered the controversy, and its cameras showed fans waving signs with messages like “Keep the Chief, Dump Simon.” The same message was on a banner trailing from an airplane flown over the stadium. It can be assumed that in his efforts to be reelected to the Senate this year Simon will have some trouble with the UI vote.

By now, just about everybody in America has been accused of racism and just about everybody is fed up with it. Even in a university town, few people feel the need to preface their support for the Chief with protestations of their sensitivity. Instead, sarcastic speculation as to what absurdity will be next is the sport among local wags. Purdue’s Boilermakers demean and dehumanize boilermaker-Americans everywhere, and along with the likes of the Milwaukee Brewers express disrespect for union members. Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish clearly perpetuate an ethnic stereotype; worse, their mascot is a leprechaun played by a normal-sized man-a slap in the face to midget-Americans. Joining the fun, The Wall Street Journal notes that pacifists can object to the Washington Bullets, environmentalists to the Hartford Whalers . . . why, the possibilities are endless.