Blog Post

And it Dont Stop: The White Mans Chief and the First Amendment

Today, most Whites who use the word Indian have little idea of specific tribal peoples or individual Native Americans to render their usage much more than an abstraction, if not stereotype-Robert Berkhofer, Jr. (1978)


Can the reality of Native American life ever be penetrated behind the screen of White ideology and imagination non mater how benevolent those expectations?-Robert Berkhofer, Jr. (1978)


The First Amendment--specifically the right to assemble and free speech--are two components of the Constitution that many people throughout United States history have used to publicly present their ideas, no matter how controversial. This amendment has protected numerous groups, whether those groups promoted civil rights or extreme forms of racism. However, as most people know, there are limits to the Western model of free speech. When does free speech go to far? An example of this is the controversial group on the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigns campus, Students for Chief Illiniwek ( Specifically, what is most troubling is the use of the next dance where some person dances an authentic Native American dance, which is nothing more than ballet. The place is generally filled with students, community members and many types of chief supporters


I readily admit that this controversy is not new. Indeed, Native peoples on the U of I campus have protested against this for years, which led to the retirement of the chief in early 2007 ( However, as a first year Native student, I was appalled and shocked at the casualness in which students wear the chief t-shirts and chief symbols with an arrogant pride that one cannot imagine. However, this is not necessarily the general student populations fault. While I think it is wrong for students to be able to exercise free speech and assemble in order to blatantly promote racism, people do have the right to assemble and speak freely, as stated in the United States Constitution. However, free speech and the right to assemble is a limited mode of protection, for while minorities have utilized this protection historically for positive gain, it does not consider ways in which free speech promotes dehumanization of Native peoples. Certainly people would not allow the renting out of university space to a group who promoted a little black sambo character who hopped and skipped and said yessir boss! Why can this be done against Native peoples?


The belief that students can honor Native American culture by honoring the chief is not only false, but promotes more visceral and blatant forms of racism against Native Americans. For example, walking across campus I noticed variations of chief shirts from honoring tradition to students for chief Illiniwek. These t-shirts--while ridiculous and tolerable to an extent--are not too bad. The more disturbing t-shirts read not now chief, Im drinking and chief, can I offer you a drink? If one knows anything about Native peoples in the United States one struggle in many of these communities is that of alcoholism. Again, though, while these individual examples of racism are blatant, it is the University culture that fosters such racism. And, because students are allowed to continue to assemble and maintain the culture of racism and dehumanization through the next dance, more visceral forms of racism are allowed to continue.


Another disturbing outcome of honoring the chief is other people of color wearing chief t-shirts. While I am not nave to so-called coalitions between people of color indeed coalitions between racial minorities is more of an ideal it is still a bit disturbing to see. This brings several questions to mind: do these other students of color know their own history? Do these students believe into the powerful vanishing Indian thought? Why do students of color choose to support the chief by wearing a false representation of a Native American? These questions are difficult to answer empirically. However, one can speculate that the Universitys culture of racism against Native peoples is so strong that it sucks in people of color to accept the chief as a way of life and tradition, without questioning the dynamics of power and the limits of the Universitys official retirement of the chief. Further, there is something to be said about the lack of at least one federally recognized tribe in the state of Illinois. Perhaps this is related in some way. While the chief was retired, the fact that the University does not speak out against racism is a problem.


While I believe that free speech and the right to assemble are important, they are limited and do not contain clauses to protect against racism and dehumanization. Because Native peoples are invisible to many people--indeed the vanishing Indian thought continues--respect for specific Native cultures does not exist. What can be done to counter this? While the University has to allow students to assemble, it should speak out against racist stereotypes, for the image of the chief not only negatively affects Native peoples self-esteem and promotes white peoples self-esteem--as demonstrated by Stephanie Frybergs study--it also promotes psychological violence against Native people. This psychological violence could lead to positive or negative outcomes. The anger one feels when one sees a false representation of self is indescribable. People should realize that Native Americans and their culture have not vanished and continue to exist, and Native Americans can and do adequately promote their own representation of self. Only Native peoples can honor themselves, not a false representation with the protection of the First Amendment.  

Let's change discourse!


Kyle Mays





hi kyle - thanks for the post! i thought you made some really good points. i wrote on this issue when i was an undergraduate at Mizzou. i specifically mentioned the "Chief" as well. 

I thought you made very strong points in re: "Why do students of color choose to support the chief by wearing a false representation of a Native American? ... it sucks in people of color to accept the chief as a way of life and tradition, without questioning the dynamics of power..."

Here is my very unscientific take: in many ways, i think we have become de-sensitized as a nation, to the way Native Americans are treated. the US gov's policies in relation to Native Americans, have led to them literally being "disappeared" from the country.  Native Americans also are ignored in national conversations on ethnicity/race, leading to the false assumptions that there are only 4 major ethnic/racial groups in the country. 

This, coupled with the obvious draw at being an accepted member of the crowd: anyone who has ever been to Illinois campus during a football, basketball, or heck, probably even lawn darts game, knows Illinis are all about the sports. Illinois is also a pretty darn competitive school academics-wise. For those students wanting to fit in, get in, and stay in, wearing Illiniwek on their chests means they are part of a chosen group.

Do I think students of color should be put to a higher standard? yes, and no. yes, because they should really be a bit more self-reflexive and think about their feelings if it were a member of their group paraded around like a circus act novelty, and no, b/c all of the students at Illinois should be held to the same standard. Just b/c I'm of color doesn't mean I feel solidarity with other POCs (or within my own group, for that matter). But non-POC students shouldn't be let off the hook, either. It's the responsibility of all of us to make our respective workplaces and campuses welcoming environments for all people. 

You also stated, "While the chief was retired, the fact that the University does not speak out against racism is a problem."  Yes. But it would be helpful to remember (and more than likely, a little infuriating) that Illiniwek and the Illini are a brand. A very lucrative brand.  Students have been protesting Illiniwek for years and for years alumni have been saying that getting rid of the Chief would be like erasing their college experience. Which would lead, quite naturally, to those alumni erasing their donations.  Alumni donations often are the bread and butter of a university, especially public universities, which are tied to the state budget. The state of Illinois' budget reads like a bad mystery: full of holes and we already know who the villains are, but we can't understand why no one ever puts the bad guys in jail for being so obvious. If alumni donations were to dry up, any university, not just Illinois, would be in super big godzilla trouble. 

Does that mean, Illiniwek isn't patently offensive? no. but for my part, I think it explains why the university administration won't really ever take a stand against the Chief. it also means that instead of passively sitting around and watching him do his stuff, people need to keep speaking up. Illiniwek may not ever be removed from the university, but it doesn't mean one strong voice or two can't convince some of those folks on the way from the game to turn their shirts inside out.


Thanks, Kim, for your response. I completely understand your comment about the relationship between alumni donations and the maintenance of the chief. However, this does not mean that the University could not speak out against it. I doubt, although I have no way of proving this, that alumni donations would cease. It's an unfounded fear that they would, but as demonstrated, or as I can prove, thousands of students continue to support the "chief" as do alumni at sporting events.

As far as students of color speaking out agains the "chief," I think you have a good point. Indeed just because a student of color is of color does not mean they should feel sympathy with Native American people. I agree with you here and in fact, I mentioned this in the second sentence (I believe) in my post. I said something to the effect that I do not believe in mythical forms of coalitions between people of color, which I consider an ideal at this point, for various reasons (class, historical experiences, etc.). However, this does not mean that they cannot understand their own histories. Your point about U of I culture is very strong, I think. I made a similar comment in my post.

What can be done? This is the big question that anti-chief activists have been doing and thinking of for years. One thing that can happen is a counter discourse must happen. I am not a believer in trying to convince a few kids on their way from the game to turn their t-shirts inside out; the "chief" issue is a systematic issue, not one of a few students on campus. The University is directly responsible.


Kyle Mays


I also think the post you made a couple days ago regarding Tyler Clementi and the Duke "ratings" meme is highly relevant here. Teaching students virtue, civility, and respect no longer appears to be that much of a priority in our schools, either K-12 or university--maybe because one can't put those things on a standardized test.


This is a great post!