THE BLOG
02/21/2007 05:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Last Dance of Chief Illiniwek

The news is out that the University of Illinois will drop its Chief Illiniwek mascot. It just goes to show that not all "traditions" are honorable.

It all began in 1926 when an Illinois student named Lester Leutwiler put on a homemade Indian costume and pranced around the football field at halftime. It will come to an end on Wednesday when the current mascot, Dan Maloney, will do the splits and other non-Indian dance steps for the last time.

This time-honored tradition faced its first objection when a young lady of Spokane Indian heritage, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, named Charlene Teters, stood alone and fearful at a football game in Champaign holding a small sign that read, "We are human beings and not mascots."

Many of the fans and alumni of the "Fighting Illini" were at first puzzled and then angered at the audacity of this young Indian lady. Some spat on her as they walked past and others flipped burning cigarettes at her. But she tearfully stood her ground because she had grown increasingly sick and tired of having her people insulted every Saturday for the sake of a football game.

To stand alone in the face of such fury and anger from a supposed educated segment of America's white society took courage and determination, but the constant insults and abuse soon caused Ms. Teters to waiver. Her fear was mostly for that of her children and not herself. But tell me this; why should any person fear for their very lives for protesting the use of Indians as mascots for America's fun and games?

After observing a particular crude presentation at the halftime of a Washington Redskins football game in 1982 I wrote a column questioning the use of human beings as mascots in a fashion that demeaned them. The incident involved a group of fans painting a pig red, placing a feathered bonnet on its head and then chasing it around the fifty-yard line as halftime entertainment. The first thing that struck me was what if these fans had painted a pig black and placed an Afro-wig on its head and did this stunt at halftime? Even 25 years ago this would have gone over about as well as a fart in church.

I was stunned by the hate mail I received for this column. I was asked to be on a national radio call-in show to talk about the use of Indians as mascots. Once again, the hate directed at me spewed from the radio. Mind you, I am Native American, Oglala Lakota, born and raised on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Some of the callers suggested that, "If I didn't like it, go back to wherever in the hell I came from."

One day I got a call from Charlene Teters. She told me she was hurt and frightened by the attacks upon her for standing up against the use of Chief Illiniwek as her school's mascot. She said she was going to quit school and go home. I said, "That is your choice Char, but if you quit, they win." Well, she didn't quit but instead continued her protests even beyond the day she graduated. Soon hundreds of Native Americans showed up on Homecoming Day at the University of Illinois to join Ms. Teters in her protest.

I joined the protest one year as a newspaper reporter. I walked near the protestors taking pictures as they marched. I was once again overwhelmed by the degree of hatred aimed at these protestors. Profanity such as "F" you squaws" or "Get the hell out of here you drunken Indians," rained down on the protestors on their march to the stadium. My God, what a proud tradition! How can a people exude such hatred for real Indians while honoring a phony chief?

Howard Wakeland, president of the Honor the Chief Society said after the decision to remove Illiniwek as the school's mascot that it was like putting the mascot in a museum. "Put him in a cage and walk by and say that's our symbol. That seriously kills the heart of the chief." There will always be those who just don't get it.

In the minds of most Native Americans it is high time Illiniwek was placed in a museum. I hope the traditional Sioux regalia the University purchased from Chief Fools Crow under false pretenses are returned before their mascot is put on display. Fools Crow believed the University purchased the outfit for historical and educational purposes. When I showed him a photo of how the costume was actually used he was furious. Before his death several years ago he asked, "How can I get them back?" The Oglala Sioux Tribe is now demanding their return thanks to Eileen Janis, the former vice president of the tribe.

The University of Illinois joined other colleges and universities that saw their traditional mascots as racist and did away with them. There are still handful Indian tribes that have sold out their heritage and allow colleges to use their images as mascots. And there is still a professional football team that uses the color of a people's skin for its mascot.

I honor Charlene Teters for her courage and determination. She has fought for and helped bring about many changes at colleges like Stanford, Marquette, Dartmouth and more that have dropped their Indian mascots and declared them as racist. I will consider America grown up when it finally determines that to name a professional football team "Redskins" after the color of a people's skin is one of the last bastions of racial prejudice in this country.

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 - 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind")