WHOSE HONOR? (1997)
Within three months the Trustees had accepted the suggestion. Soon after, a new nickname, RedHawks, was adopted. No fuss, no muss, no bother. Civility on both sides.
By comparison, the Chief Illiniwek case at the University of Illinois has been a battleground for some time. This is the main (but by no means parochial) subject of the excellent film "In Whose Honor," a new entry in the high-quality P.O.V. (Point of View) series of non-fiction films by independent filmmakers -- the kind of series that would probably have never materialized were it not for PBS. (Last week's amusing P.O.V. was about the maverick, now admired now ridiculed filmmaker Henry Jaglom).
It airs on WILL-TV at 7 pm, Tuesday July 15. At 8 pm, simulcast on WILL-TV and WILL-AM 580 radio, comes a Talking Point follow-up discussion --and no doubt, argumentation -- with comments by guests and call-ins. It will be a hot time in the old town that night.
The documentary is being broadcast nationally. In addition to its general importance, it has many levels of appeal for our community. It is topical, it was mostly filmed here, Jay Rosenstein (its maker as producer, director, editor, co-cinematographer, chief bottle washer) is a UIUC graduate. Still at the University, he teaches at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and is also a multimedia producer. Long may he stay with us.
"American Indians are human beings, not mascots," is one of the refrains that sum up the film as well as the feelings of many -- Indian or not -- across the nation, who have been successful in having several sports teams abandon their Indian nicknames and paraphernalia.
The Illiniwek "cause celebre," slowly caught fire when Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian, came to the UIUC campus in the late 1980s as a graduate student in Art. Soon after, she took her children to an Illini basketball game. The mother and the children were dismayed, shocked and upset by the dancing-prancing-twirling Chief Illiniwek.
Attractive, articulate and eloquent Ms. Teters, is often on camera, describing lucidly how and why she and many others feel that the Illiniwek type of activities, symbols, regalia, mascots plus many inauthenticities are blows to Indian pride and self-esteem as they constitute non-respect of important rituals.
In interviews with American Indian personalities, we even learn that genuine drumbeats are like heartbeats and not as conceived by Hollywood. (I believe that what popularized the phony beats was the outrageously kitschy "Indian Tom-Tom" sequence in the 1936 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy hit film "Rose Marie," from a famous operetta. This hit movie has to be on TV these days since Jimmy Stewart had one of his early roles in it).
The documentary has many scenes that were started some years ago, as it followed on the Urbana campus the outraged, originally unsupported Charlene. She ran a one-person campaign against the Chief, picketed games, spoke of the demeaning the Native Americans. Though shunned, even vilified by some students, she went on doggedly, insisting that since symbols of Indian culture meant so much to the Indians, they ought not to be treated lightly, as entertainment.
There is much coverage of the situation, including a person at a football game who, reacting to the pressures to eliminate Chief Illiniwek, states that "People shouldn't cave in to out-of-state foreigners."
No one caved in among the Trustees, the alumni, the fans or the officials. The Trustees, like Susan Gravehorst (one of the participants in Talking Point), wisely are not presented as insensitive foes of Charlene, but as sincere partisans of the status quo. Mrs. Gravehorst cannot imagine how the Chief "who deports himself with such dignity and such solemnity ... can be perceived as a racial insult or slur." The Chiefs themselves are pleasant, clean-cut fellows, also convinced that their "characters" actually honor the Indian people.
The controversy is followed in detail, in ramifications that include financial aspects, politics, shifts by the U of I attitudes. It gets amplified as Charlene becomes a national leader in the cause, and is seen in rallies and protests in other cities where games use Indian names and symbols.
The common-sense solution is that while most pro-Chiefers are honestly persuaded that their opponents are wrong and far too touchy, so long as a clear majority within an ethnic minority feel so strongly and do not consider themselves honored, so long as abolishing the Chief does not wound persons or institutions, the fracas could be ended quickly and gently with the stroke of a pen. Remember Miami.