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 (http://www.studentsforchief.com/). 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 (http://www.ais.illinois.edu/mascot/). 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!