Skip to main content

The real Fightin' Whities

When the Fightin' Whites basketball team in Colorado made headlines, I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, dealing with what might have been prototypes for the moniker.

The logo for the Colorado team is a rendering of a 1950s 'Father Knows Best' white American male. It rather closely resembles younger versions of most of the University of Illinois trustees, staunch defenders of the school's team name, Fighting Illini, and its prancing mascot, Chief Illiniwek.

Solomon Little Owl (Crow), a Fightin' Whites team player, said to CNN: 'We disagree with Native American caricatures and sports logos, but when we raise the issue, people say, 'Oh, it's not derogatory, it's meant to honor you.' So we decided to show them how it feels.' The intramural team is cross-cultural and plays at the University of Northern Colorado.

'It was meant to be offensive,' fumed CNN political analyst Robert Novak on a March 13 Crossfire segment on the Fightin' Whites. 'They made the whites as a kind of silly little boys, white bread people,' he said.

Novak is an Illinois alum who shares with the school's trustees an undisguised disdain for those who disagree with him on matters Illiniwek.

Many of the trustees in their March 13 meeting were openly contemptuous during the five-minute statements from those of us who do not admire the Native references in their athletic program. Only a handful of them even looked at me, let alone listened. Most turned away, half talked to each other and some rolled their eyes and made silly faces while I was struggling hard to take them seriously.

One trustee made a derisive comment, audible in the press corps section, about one of the witnesses, Illinois Professor Stephen J. Kaufman, and another chided him in public after the meeting. Kaufman testified that the academic leadership of the campus recommends retiring Illiniwek and offered an alternative: 'With no reference to Native Americans and no Indian logo, the Fighting Illinois is an acceptable compromise.'

Red Roots, the Native American community at the school, issued a written statement: 'We believe the symbol/mascot and team name are an obstacle to the development of academic and student services programs for Native Americans at UIUC. Only when the mascot is retired and a new name for the sports teams is chosen will there be positive change for Native Americans at UIUC and in Champaign-Urbana.'

Red Roots president Diana Stimpel (Ojibwe), who is working on a political science degree, and past president Debbie Reese (San Juan Pueblo), who just earned her doctorate in education, stated that 'mascots inspired by Native American culture add to the general body of misinformation about Native American culture.

'Moreover, these mascots create environments that are hostile and confrontational to Native Americans who speak publicly about problems associated with mascots and stereotypes in general.' The Native students I talked to decried the hostility against them on campus and in town, as well as the absence of University programs, services, scholarships or a center for Native students.

The only African-American trustee, Roger Plummer, also an alum, delivered a thin report on his ten-month study of the issues, concluding that there are two choices: retain the Chief or retire the Chief. Oscar Wilde once called such a statement a 'blinding glimpse of the obvious.' The trustees plan to study the matter for another few months.

The trustees' meeting was attended by some 75 school alums, mostly white folks, decked out in their orange and blue team colors. The male alums were making rude gestures and comments toward the Native people and supporters. A couple even started shouting matches with other white men who disagreed with them.

Security was very much in evidence, presumably to protect the meeting participants and observers. One of the guards protected me all the way into the restroom and stood at the next sink facing me while I combed my hair.

Inside the meeting room, I introduced myself to the two most senior women in orange t-shirts, saying I hoped they could persuade their rowdies not to get rowdier. 'Your group is rowdy, too,' said one.

The other asked me where I was from, as in, 'You're not from here, are you? You're from the outside.' When I said I was from Oklahoma and asked if they ever wondered why there were no Indian nations in Illinois, they erupted: 'Oklahoma. Well, no wonder. The Peorias killed all the Indians around here, you know, and moved to Oklahoma.'

The Native Peoples in what is now Illinois were mowed down or marched to Indian Territory. The team is named after the Illini or Illinois Confederacy, which was comprised of the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Miami, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria and Tamaroa. For most of them, genocide was accomplished.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The Peoria Tribe ? which was moved from their home in Illinois to Missouri, then to Kansas, then to Oklahoma ? has asked the school to drop its offensive references to their people.

On Crossfire, Novak echoed other Illinois fans when he claimed, 'There was no intention to have these Indian nicknames offensive. We have a tremendous war dance by Chief Illiniwek. Isn't this part of the deep American tradition of respect for the fighting qualities of the Indians who gave the white people such a hard time on the battlefield?'

That 'respect' came about as Native Peoples were being subjected to the slow torture of confinement, starvation and deculturization. That period exactly brackets the emergence of the Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek at the Illinois University.

The Illini showed up in 1874 as the name of the school paper, which is a dignified and respectful way to use a name. It gradually became the name of the team, which subjects a name to indignities and disrespect, at the very least from the opposing fans. At that same time in history, Army officers and Smithsonian 'scientists' were collecting Indian heads from graves and massacre sites, and otherwise showing 'respect' for Indian people.

Chief Illiniwek started dancing at half-time in 1926, when federal Indian agents were punishing Indians for dancing on reservations. The federal government specifically banned the Sun Dance 'and all other similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies' from 1880 to 1936. Interior secretaries and Indian commissioners ordered federal Indian agents to undertake a 'careful propaganda' to 'educate public opinion against the dance.'

Federal notices were posted prominently on reservations, warning that Indians would be treated as 'hostiles' if they danced.

One, in 1921, reiterated the prohibitions and penalties regarding 'any dance which involves ... the reckless giving away of property ... frequent or prolonged periods of celebration ... in fact any disorderly or plainly excessive performance that promotes superstitious cruelty, licentiousness, idleness, danger to health, and shiftless indifference to family welfare.'

Another, in 1923, allowed dances to occur during seven months of the year, 'limited to one in each month in the daylight hours of one day in the midweek, and at one center in each district,' and prohibited anyone under 50 from being present.

While Indian people were outlaws for the federal crime of Indian dancing, white guys in educational and professional sports arenas were dressing up like Halloween 'Indians' and dancing the fool.

'Until the mid-1980s, the Chief was an uncontroversial and revered tradition keeping alive the memory of the vanished Illini tribe,' wrote Washington Post columnist George F. Will in 1995. Native Americans have long protested Native references in sports, of course, and the first one was dropped in 1970 by the University of Oklahoma, fifteen years before Will snapped to the issue.

Will's hometown is Champaign and, although educated at Oxford and Princeton Universities, he is a long-time Fighting Illini fan. 'Then came the rise, particularly on campuses, of identity politics, with grievance groups claiming special rights as reparations for historic wrongs,' he wrote.

'This produced in government a compassion industry backed by sensitivity police and thought vigilantes,' wrote Will. 'Since then, Chief Illiniwek has been under attack. The Chief's tormentors have tried to thwart him with The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, but unfortunately for them, that law does not make it illegal to impersonate an Indian.'

Each Chief Illiniwek Indian impersonator wears a beaded shirt once worn by Oglala Chief Fools Crow (Lakota/Cheyenne). A University agent bought the shirt in 1982, when Fools Crow was over 90 years old and infirm; his home and most of his belongings had burned to the ground and he was desperate for money. This is part of the 75-year 'honorable tradition' of the Chief.

Chuck Archambault is not honored by the Chief. He is Hunkpapa, Oglala and Cheyenne, a 21-year-old guard for the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi basketball team.

Last December, Archambault's team played the Fighting Illini in Champaign. His sister, Jodi Archambault Gillette, was in the stands with their mother. 'We were so embarrassed and outraged about that dancing and chanting,' said Gillette. 'We started yelling, 'No, no, stop it, stop it,' and the people around us stopped their yelling and just stared at us. We couldn't believe how awful it was.'

After the game, Archambault said to the Chief, 'I'm a real Indian. You're just a fake.'

The dancing Chief Illiniwek, most Illinois trustees, Fighting Illini boosters Robert Novak and George F. Will and all those federal officials who made it a crime to dance while Indian ? they are the real Fightin' Whities.