Monday, January 15, 2007

In Whose Honor?

In my class on Tuesday, I will be discussing indigenous peoples, particularly Native Americans in what is now the U.S., in my class. And what I like to use for these discussions is a great film by Jay Rosenstein, "In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports." The film follows a graduate student, Charlene Teters, at Urbana Champaign, home of the "fighting Illini" and the made-up "Chief Illiniwek," a character invented for the sole purpose of lending a sense of history and tradition to the University's sporting events. Teters confronts college athletics at a university that is, in large part, driven by football. The film also discusses the history of the oppression of Native people in the U.S., and the tradition (since those White mascot-lovin' folk love to talk about tradition) of using images of Native Americans in racist, violent ways.

What many White people don't understand about the Indian mascot issue is that, in general, people do not like being caricatured and presented as mascots. It's a funny thing, I know.

The film explains, carefully and poignantly, that regardless of the intent, wearing ceremonial outfits and Eagle feathers that one did not earn and choreographing dances does not constitute honoring a Native population. In fact, it is religious desecration. It is exactly the same as a sports team dressing up a mascot as Jesus or Mohammed or the Pope and having this person dance around. The only difference is that when White people do it to Indians, they not only insist they are honoring them, but they pout that the mascots are part of their own traditions. Thus, Native people and cultures are perceived as part of America's history, which means then that their history is owned by all Americans. They are not entitled to own their own history, culture, and religion.

Most of the time, when I show this film, students *get it.* Sometimes for the first time, they understand what Ward Churchill was talking about in "Crimes Against Humanity." There are always a couple of students who still aren't clear that what is at stake here is the appropriation of religious beliefs and the use of real live people as decorations, but in general, I think, the film presents this debate in a very powerful way, so that those who come away in disagreement still generally understand the argument.

And so, as I am teaching a course on genocide, and as we are reading Andrea Smith's Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, and as Smith has a chapter on spiritual genocide, I really wanted to show this film.

When I first saw the film on POV several years ago, I videotaped it for future use in the classroom. After using it for a couple of semesters, I felt guilty and contacted Jay Rosenstein to ask his permission to continue to use my bootlegged copy (I have no budget to purchase a copy - they run $105 - $240). To my great relief, Rosenstein gave me permission to continue using my copy, urging me to have my school library purchase one when I was in a position to do so.

So, last night I went to the video cabinet to pull out my trusty (albeit battered) VHS tape from 8 or 10 years ago.

And it was gone.

I went into school this morning on my way to Bean's birthday party, but the film was not in my office.

I keep obsessively returning to the video cabinet and ransacking it, but I am coming to grips with the stark reality that it is not there. This means that I have lent the film to (gulp) one of any number of people.

If I've lent it to you, I want it back.

In the meantime, I am thinking of showing Whale Rider, which is hardly the same, but which does focus on tradition and spirituality and their central role in the indigenous Maori community.

But I still want it back. Please, if you have it, let me know.


Anonymous said...

What about the Florida State Seminoles? Don't they have a relationship with the Seminole Tribe that allows them to have the mascot (that also got them off the NCAA blacklist)? I've only read bits and pieces, here and there, but I know that some information was included in news stories concerning the UND Fighting Sioux controversy with the NCAA and their participation in football playoff games. Do you have any insight into either of those matters?

Plain(s)feminist said...

I don't! I wish I did. If you find out anything, please come back and post here. And if I learn anything, I'll write an update.

Debbie Reese said...

IN WHOSE HONOR is about the mascot at UIUC. Since the film was made, we now have a Native American House and an American Indian Studies program. However, the mascot issue is worse than ever. For up to date info, visit our website:

And, visit my blog:

I came to UIUC in 94 to work on a doctorate. Currently, I'm on the faculty in American Indian Studies. I'm tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in New Mexico.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for stopping by and for posting the links. I'm appalled that this controversy and abuse has continued. You'd think that after so much negative attention, the university would be embarrassed enough to get rid of the mascot, but from the film, it seems clear that the administration is more interested in trying to justify its actions and placate the alumn$.

I'm curious - do you find that many of the faculty object to the "chief," and are they in a position to speak out about it and teach about it without this threatening their jobs?

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your site. Email me and I'll get you another copy of IN WHOSE HONOR?