Respect Native American symbols

Sarah Tomkinson

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A member of the Spokane Tribe wasn’t expecting to contribute to an overhaul of the University of Illinois mascot when she first signed up to work on her master’s degree there. 

Charlene Teters chose U of I for many reasons not surrounding the school mascot at all, but what she saw offended her. She had to cover her child’s eyes as she watched U of I take symbols and use them inaccurately. To her, the feathered headdress that represented leadership and high power was given to a person who did not earn that claim, and the dance was nowhere near close to accurate. It was just a slap in the face. 

Defense for the mascot, Chief Illiniwek, goes back to 1916 when Illinois student Truman Michelson said that it was fine to base the figure off of the Peoria Tribe, because “there probably (are) no absolutely pureblooded Peoria Indians left.” The mascot was fully invented in 1926, and the University didn’t look back on it until 1989. 

In 1995, representatives from the Peoria Tribe told local news station WICD that they felt the Chief was neither accurate nor historical. 

Teters also finds it sad that American Indians are being used in their historical sense and not a modern way. 

 “Often, people think about Native Americans as we were envisioned at the turn of the century,” said Teters in 2005 to the California State Polytechnic University. “If we’re not walking around in buckskin and fringe, mimicking the stereotype in dress and art form, we’re not seen as real. Native Americans are here, and we are contemporary people. Yet we are very much informed and connected to our history.”

On Native Heritage American Day, it’s time to take a step back and realize what it would be like if our family’s past and struggles were of the same kind. 

In the past, people of our country kicked Native Americans out of their native lands, forced them to adapt to our standards and norms, and then used inaccurate portrayals of their society to represent items in the mass media. 

The images are all around us, especially with Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving closer than we anticipate. Look at butter, sports teams, alcohol and a number of other products. Native Americans are on labels dressed in clothing seen in “Pocahontas” or “Peter Pan.” 

Teters had every right to be upset about the Chief Illiniwek image. It gave society an inaccurate portrayal of her culture, and she wanted them to know there is more to being a Native American than wearing certain clothes and doing spiritual dances. 

Society needs to quit accepting those labels and stop perpetuating the stereotype of the turn of the century Native American. They’re a culture that has changed just like the rest of the world.