The film “In Whose Honor?” discusses Chief Illiniwek as the mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the effects it had on Native American people. The mascot and symbol was associated with the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs for over 80 years and was portrayed by a student dressed in Sioux clothing. The student performed dances during football, basketball and volleyball games to entertain fans and help build school spirit. Chief Illiniwek was the center of controversy for over 20 years because many thought that the Chief misappropriated Native American culture and brought about harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes. In the film, graduate student Charlene Teters explains the impact that the Chief had on her and her children. After facing ridicule and much criticism, Charlene Teters is able to successfully lead the initiative in retiring Chief Illiniwek as the mascot and symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Also included in the film are many interviews with various members of the university’s trustees, students, alumni, fans and community members.
Early in the film Charlene Teters talks about taking her children to a University of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball game. Before the game starts, a student dressed up as Chief Illiniwek goes out on the court and does a dance. Teters describes the sadness and hurtful emotions that she and her children experienced when watching the dance as they are taught growing up to respect the Chief and the ways in which he is shown are degrading towards Teters and her children. When University of Illinois Trustee Susan Gravenhorst is asked about Chief Illiniwek and how he could be seen as promoting an inaccurate image of Native Americans, she responds saying, “I can’t imagine that the Chief, who deports himself, whomever serves as the Chief, deports himself with such dignity, and such solemnity. I can’t imagine that that can be perceived as a racial insult or as a slur on the Native American community. To me, it’s a compliment” (Rosenstein). This insensitivity shown here by trustees like Gravenhorst demonstrates the ignorance that they have towards respecting the Native American culture. Gravenhorst and others throughout the film claim that Chief Illiniwek was a revered symbol that represented the great spirit of a great university. While they may have thought that Chief Illiniwek was a focal point for university games that drew everyone together, it actually distanced Native Americans further from everyone else. Recognizing and understanding other peoples cultures, in this case Native American culture, is important in today’s society because of the role representation plays in identifying culture production. In the article “The First Americans” by Matthew Snipp, he confirms this by saying, “Preserving their culture and identity is an especially pressing concern. However, urban Indians have successfully adapted to city environments in ways that preserve valued customs and activities—powwows, for example, are an important event in all cities where there is a large Indian community” (Andersen and Collins 199). I agree with Snipp here that maintaining the Native American culture is something that is very important. Native Americans continue to be one of the smallest minorities groups and are at a disadvantage in terms of people understanding their culture and traditions. They are continually looked down upon and often overlooked when it comes to issues of race and ethnic stereotyping. Many people may not realize it, but the treatment towards Native Americans causes pain and suffering to people like Charlene Teters and her family. Taking a more concerned effort to learn about them and appreciate them will help enable them to flourish and feel valued as members of our communities. Diversity is becoming more apparent of American culture today; and realizing that how we treat people that are