Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Chief

(Cross-posted at IlliniPundit)

OK, so you know what I am about to say. Well, you have a preconceived idea that I will say one of two things, and you believe that you know all about my point of view, and probably all about me, based on which one of those two directions I go. It's called templating, and if you're like me, you've got your particular Chief template locked in place. It's really, really hard to think clearly using a template, and it's even harder to listen through two: when templates clash, what is said is seldom what is heard.

We all must accept the obligation to show some amount of tolerance, sensitivity, and good faith. Some things should not be tolerated, nor should we avoid vital issues to protect each other's feelings. But each side must prepare to meet with only partial success, or even total failure. Most importantly, each must recognize that the other side is not evil, and each is genuine in its position. Given that framework, it is unlikely that either side will even want total victory.

Speaking of two sided issues, Mom taught me that "there's always an alternative". So let's see what we're all missing by getting caught in the template trap.

One of the sociological purposes of sporting events, especially those on college campuses, is to arrange a ceremonial conflict between one group and another. The football or basketball game stands in loco belli, as a substitute for war, turning some of the aggressive pressure that would otherwise exist between the groups into good-natured rivalry. Hoosiers and Boilermakers. Wolverines and Gophers vie in symbolic conflict for superiority in some contest or another, which translates to the right to claim superiority in a larger sense.

Contests of skill and sport existed in ancient times, though often of a more martial nature. Gladiators, Olympians, and other champions vied to bring glory not only for themselves, but for their group also. The contests were sometimes used as a form of diplomacy, when neither side wanted open war. Native Americans also saw the value in it:

Apart from its recreational function, lacrosse traditionally played a more serious role in Indian culture. Its origins are rooted in legend, and the game continues to be used for curative purposes and surrounded with ceremony. Game equipment and players are still ritually prepared by conjurers, and team selection and victory are often considered supernaturally controlled. In the past, lacrosse also served to vent aggression, and territorial disputes between tribes were sometimes settled with a game, although not always amicably. A Creek versus Choctaw game around 1790 to determine rights over a beaver pond broke out into a violent battle when the Creeks were declared winners. Still, while the majority of the games ended peaceably, much of the ceremonialism surrounding their preparations and the rituals required of the players were identical to those practiced before departing on the warpath.
The right to claim superiority and the notoriety that goes with victory are tacit goals of the athletic contest. For some imperceptive observers, athletic prowess can even spill over to affect academic reputation, positively or negatively. The level of success affects admissions and donations, the raison d'etre for academia and its life blood, respectively. Part of the template for the Pro-Chief side is that the Chief promotes athletic success and alumni loyalty directly, and must be kept for those reasons.

But why the Chief? Why not use some other symbol? The question misses the point completely, because it presupposes incorrectly the purpose of the Chief.

At the time of European contact, the Illiniwek Confederation (or "Confederacy", or "Nation") made the area now known as Illinois their home. Before 1700, they may have numbered between 2000 and 70,000 people, depending on which account is to be believed. After 1800, due to genocidal wars with the Iroquois and others, the Illiniwek Confederacy ceased to be a factor, and many of the tribes were completely gone.

Whether the Illiniwek were destroyed by the hand of the Iroquois, through resource scarcity, or otherwise, it is likely that the historical tsunami of European contact was a major factor in their demise. History happens. Both the Pro-Chief and the Anti-Chief carry this in their template, but in different ways. The Pro-Chief seek to honor the fallen, while the Anti-Chief seek to redress the grievance.

The Pro-Chief template appears to include a view that those who oppose the Chief are political opportunists, seeking change for its own sake, for their own egos, and to enforce political correctness. As if in confirmation, the Anti-Chief home page charges that the Chief is a "stereotypical and racist representation of Native people", implying that part of the the Anti-Chief template is that the Pro-Chief side consists of wholly unrepentant bigots. As I said, stereotyping and templating are the rule for both sides in this controversy.

A stereotype is a simplified model of a group of people who share some characteristics, often used to imply that all the members of the group share those and perhaps other characteristics. Stereotyping uses what logicians call the Fallacy of Division, in which the properties of the whole are imputed to the parts. Stereotypes are almost always in error; the question is to what degree the type does not fit, and by not fitting, insults.

In the case of the Chief we have an explicit stereotype, chosen ostensibly to glorify the ancient Illiniwek peoples. The Chief is cloistered, kept away from anything that would sully his value as an icon. The character is portrayed only at certain specific times, and to use the Chief as a cheerleader or spokesman would detract from his image. The intent is to remind those present of the honor due the great people whose name the State and University bear. The effect of the Chief portrayal is to engender in the Illinois faithful what can best be termed awe.

Through the Chief, the Illini athletic teams are connected symbolically with the Illiniwek warriors of old, and Illini fans with the rest of the ancient Illiniwek. The Chief's portrayal was intended by its creators to honor the memory of the departed Illiniwek people.

The Chief is a gift.

But some who speak for the ancient Illiniwek, with DNA inherited from them or not, reject the gift as an insult. They charge that the images invoked by his dance, dress, and name, the Chief casts all Native Americans as performing dances similar to his. Since his dance is superficially similar to one found in a religious ritual, they charge an implication that all such dances are similar to the Chief's, making his dance a hostile caricature. That is, they infer an intended insult. In any case, part of the offense seems to be that a white man portrays the Chief. They say by all of this that the Chief and his dance are racial and religious slurs.

The template for Chief opponents thus does not allow them to accept with grace the gift that is offered to the memory of the ancient Illiniwek. Conversely, the template for Chief supporters does not allow them see that anyone could reject such a gift. Supporters cannot understand who would deny the ancient Illiniwek the gift of being held in awed reverence, and opponents cannot understand who would pretend respect for the chance to do harm.

But the gift is not offered to those who are now rejecting it; the gift is offered to the memory of those who have made the long voyage across the river. Some slights, even insults, we simply shake off; others, we cannot. The easiest slights to shake off are the unintentional ones, especially those not even ours. Only time will tell which is stronger: the reverence with which the Chief is held, or the disdain for that reverence among those who purport to represent interests of those he symbolizes.

And only the good faith of both sides will make it possible to find an alternative to the templates now seared in place. The Pro-Chief side may have to humbly reach out to those who claim injury, noting that the gift as it has been given up to now may not have been fully appreciated by the ancient Illiniwek. And the Anti-Chief side may have to swallow its pride and, knowing that it is not perfect, accept the gift.

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