Twenty Years of Fighting Native American Mascots with "In Whose Honor?"

07/24/2017 11:00 pm ET
The documentary film <a rel="nofollow" href="https://www.inwhosehonor.com/" target="_blank">In Whose Honor? </a>, available f
© 1997 jay rosenstein
The documentary film In Whose Honor? , available from New Day Films and Kanopy

Twenty years ago, on July 15, 1997, at precisely 8PM Central time, I took my dog out for a walk.

I don’t remember that exact detail because of a legal case, a witness statement, or a trial. I remember it because that was the moment when my four-long-years-in-the-making documentary, IN WHOSE HONOR?, about the controversy over the use of American Indian mascots in sports, hit the airwaves for the first time. It was the first television broadcast ever, in my hometown of Champaign, Illinois. One hour later, the film would be shown to the rest of the nation on the PBS series, P.O.V..

I was too restless to sit at home and watch the broadcast, so the dog and I decided we might as well circle the neighborhood.

Although the documentary had received a huge amount of advance publicity, I wasn’t at all prepared for what I would encounter on our walk. As I peeked into the windows of the houses as we passed, every house with a TV on had it tuned in to the same thing: my documentary. Every. Single. One. It was a very strange feeling.

When I returned home, my wife had just finished packing. As IN WHOSE HONOR? was being broadcast on our local PBS station, my wife, my dog, and I jumped in the car and drove three blocks to a hotel, where we would be spending the night.

A vacation? Hardly. We had left the house just in case someone tried to bomb it or burn it down. If that sounds like an overreaction to you, consider that every person I had told in advance of our plan had the same reaction: “that’s probably a good idea.”

So, when the program’s national broadcast hit the air at 9PM (Central) on the PBS series P.O.V., the series’ Executive Producer, Lisa Heller, along with a Native American publicist she had hired, plus all sorts of other P.O.V. big-wigs and New York City V.I.P.s, all gathered in a beautiful Manhattan location to celebrate the broadcast of my film. My wife, my dog, and I, were hiding in a central Illinois hotel.

That was July 15, 1997.

Thankfully, nothing happened to my house. But such was the environment in Champaign, Illinois at the time. The film was very critical of the hometown University of Illinois’ American Indian sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek, and speaking against “the Chief” in 1997 elicited a reaction not unlike that when John Lennon famously stated the Beatles were more popular than Jesus (kids, look it up on Google).

The University of Illinois did, however, eventually get a measure of revenge against me. Three years later, I was set to be hired as a faculty member. But in what is always just a pro-forma Board of Trustees approval exercise, three members of the University’s Board of Trustees actually voted to block my hiring. Two of the three had been interviewed in the film; the third had barged into the room where I was filming an interview, insisting that I interview her immediately as well. You can’t make this stuff up folks.

Ultimately, my hiring was approved, by a 6 – 3 vote, giving me the distinction of being the only faculty member in the history of the University of Illinois to be hired without unanimous Board of Trustees approval. That goes to show the kind of out-of-proportion emotional devotion there was to this mascot. I consider it a badge of honor.

That’s about it for the negative things that happened over the twenty years since the film was released, save for a couple of stray letters (and I do mean letters, you know, those things that you used to write on a piece of paper, and place in an envelope, and …). As for the positives, there are so many I hardly know where to begin; in fact, I couldn’t possibly even remember them all.

For me personally, the impact of IN WHOSE HONOR? has been indescribable. IN WHOSE HONOR? permanently changed the trajectory of my life. My life is now defined by two halves: before IN WHOSE HONOR?, and after.

But that’s not what really matters. What matters is the impact the film has had out in the world. And it’s really quite amazing, far beyond anything I could have imagined. The film has actually changed the world a little bit. What more could anyone hope for a social issue documentary to do?

The television broadcast of IN WHOSE HONOR? was, when it comes to Native American rights activism, the shot heard ‘round the world. The film immediately became a unifying force for the many disparate groups and individuals who had been championing the movement to rid the country of these racially stereotyped American Indian sports mascots and reclaim Native American identity for Native American people. It not only solidified – and energized -- the efforts of these various groups; it also shot the issue into a kind of public awareness overdrive. Kenneth Stern, then of the American Jewish Committee and one of the very first supporters of the efforts of Native American activist Charlene Teters, who is the main subject of the film, probably expressed it best, “The film has sped up the educational curve on this issue by at least a decade.”

I felt this energy on the very first day after the film’s national broadcast. That morning, I went to work as usual. But at noon I received a strange phone message from my wife. “You better get home right now. The phone keeps ringing, and I think there’s something wrong with the answering machine.”

I ran home to see what was happening. There was nothing wrong with the answering machine. At that time, answering machines recorded messages on tape, and the 30-minute tape on our machine had completely filled up that morning, and calls were continuing to come in. It took me a week just to sort them all out.

From that day forward, nearly every time there was a group at a college, university, high school, or in a community, who were beginning the process of challenging the local American Indian sports mascot or school nickname, I would hear about it. IN WHOSE HONOR? became a central part of every one of those efforts. I only wish I had a record of all the schools and communities where this took place.

At many dozens of schools around the country, IN WHOSE HONOR? played a key role in helping to rid those schools of their Native American mascots and nicknames. And it wasn’t just at individual schools – local and even statewide school boards were being persuaded to create policies eliminating all their Native nicknames and mascots. The cities of Dallas and Los Angeles are two of the early school boards that I recall taking such action. In some cases, these efforts even eventually propagated up into state legislatures, where lawmakers took up the issue (Wisconsin and California are the two that I know of; I believe Oregon is moving a bill forward as I write this). IN WHOSE HONOR? has had some type of direct role in the elimination of more Native American school mascots than I can count, or even know about. The film has taken on a life of its own.

The one place where I am well aware of the film’s role was with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, the governing body for all of college athletics. In 1998, about a year after the release of the film, I received a mysterious phone call from someone at the NCAA. They wanted to get ten copies of IN WHOSE HONOR? to distribute to all the members of their Minority Affairs Committee. Some time later, the NCAA released a statement on behalf of that committee, recommending that all their member schools drop their Native American mascots and nicknames. I was thrilled that the film had played a part in that decision, but nothing seemed to come of it afterwards.

So, I wasn’t at all prepared for the shock I would experience when, in 2004, the NCAA itself announced that the eighteen member schools with Native American nicknames or mascots would have to get rid of them or face penalties. That NCAA policy led to my home school, the University of Illinois, finally eliminating its racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek, the mascot that was the original target of my film. I was elated, not only for the result, but also for the fact that my work had played a role in the final outcome (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my amazing colleague and brother-in-arms, the indefatigable Stephen Kaufman, who more than anyone, is the individual outside of the NCAA most responsible for influencing the organization to create this policy).

Of course, it hasn’t just been victory after victory. You’ve heard of the Washington Redskins, right? The Atlanta Braves? Kansas City Chiefs? The Cleveland Indians’ indefensibly racist cartoon logo, Chief Wahoo? All still there. When last fall’s once-every-hundred-year miracle occurred, and my boyhood team, the Chicago Cubs, were breaking the longest championship dry-spell in professional athletics, I couldn’t watch a single game because of the nausea-inducing sight of Chief Wahoo on Cleveland’s uniforms. It was sickening, in several ways. So there is much work still to be done.

But things are moving – slowly -- in the right direction. When Charlene Teters, the main character featured in IN WHOSE HONOR?, was selected as the ABC World News person of the week a few months after the documentary’s broadcast, anchor Peter Jennings practically apologized while introducing her so as not to offend his millions of pro-sports viewers. Yet by 2014, when Native American activist Amanda Blackhorse was successfully suing to end the trademark protection for the Washington Redskins (later, unfortunately, overturned), both The Daily Show and South Park absolutely skewered the team, its owner, and its fans, without the slightest hint of apology or even second thoughts. That’s one measure of progress. As for Amanda Blackhorse, she was first motivated to become involved in the fight against American Indian mascots after watching a documentary while she was a student at the University of Kansas. The film? IN WHOSE HONOR?.

And the University of Kansas is hardly the exception. As an educational tool, IN WHOSE HONOR? is used in most every college and university in America today, one of the most requested films in the history of its educational distributor, New Day Films. After twenty years, its relevance as an educational text for teaching about not just mascots, but race, stereotyping, and identity continues unabated, although it’s a decidedly mixed blessing.

But I knew all along when I made the film, that all of this would happen, right? Ha. Hardly. When I made IN WHOSE HONOR?, my vision was only that it could be a useful tool for activists to use who were working against American Indian sports mascots. I envisioned it as a link in a chain, a chain that would hopefully, eventually, lead to the elimination of these racist sports images.

I have made several documentaries since that 1997 PBS broadcast of IN WHOSE HONOR?, some more successful in film festivals (ERASED), and some more successful in garnering awards (THE LORD IS NOT ON TRIAL HERE TODAY – a Peabody Award winner). But IN WHOSE HONOR? is by far the most impactful film I have ever made, and probably ever will. It’s really the crowning achievement of my life (other than, of course, my children) and will probably be my epitaph as well. When I die, I suspect the obit in the local Champaign-Urbana newspaper will read “Jay Rosenstein, made anti-Chief Illiniwek documentary.”

And you know what? If that’s the case, I couldn’t be more proud.

Jay Rosenstein films Chief Illiniwek
© 1997 jay rosenstein
Jay Rosenstein films Chief Illiniwek

Jay Rosenstein is a documentary filmmaker, a father, and professor of Media & Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana. He can be reached at jayrosenstein@hotmail.com & www.jayrosenstein.com

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