Since it looks like it is only a matter of time now before the NCAA finally puts us all out of our Chief Illiniwek misery, I thought I would share this piece that I wrote quite awhile ago, but never really had an audience for. It seems perfect for this blog.
For those of you outside Central Illinois, the University of Illinois has a symbol/mascot (depending on which side you are on) called Chief Illiniwek, who is a white student who dons an American Indian costume and dances during halftime at football and basketball games, to the delight/horror of those watching. In the last couple of decades, there has been a most civil, calm, and reasoned debate between sober parties about whether this is a good idea.
The Chief Illiniwek Debate, at its core, is really about which side can claim the highest moral ground. On one side, we have The Anti-Chiefers, who are trying to end racial stereotyping of Native Americans. On the other side, we have The Pro-Chiefers, who are trying to honor Native Americans. Both sides love Native Americans so dang much they are just ready to explode. As the old saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting someone who is currently honoring a Native American, or thinking about doing so very soon now, as soon as the football game comes on.
As satisfying as it is to listen to groups of people yell at each other in different languages, I think it is high time we ended this dispute, for all of our sakes. If indeed we are arguing about moral positions, there seems to me an obvious way to settle it. The vast majority of Illini believe in, if not an absolute moral standard, at least a moral standard that has passed the test of time. Everyone knows it, most of us agree with it, many of us want to put it in school classrooms, and some of us want large granite idols, er, statues of it placed in courtrooms. One or two of us even want it tattooed on other peoples’ foreheads so we can point out when and where they are failing at it.
I am talking, of course, about the 10 Commandments. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even godless communists and university professors agree with most of them. All we have to do to finally put this to rest is figure out who is sinning the most, as determined by the 10 commandments as applied to the moral arguments of each side. After all, as Mark Knoplfer once sang about 2 men claiming to be Jesus: One of them must be wrong, as must one side in this debate.
Since 10 can produce a tie number, which would be completely unacceptable to any true American, I am also going to use the Golden Rule as an 11th commandment/tie-breaker. I hope this doesn’t undercut the arguments for any non-Christians out there. It just seems that “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” is too good a tool to leave lying on the floor when there is so much moral work to be done.
So without further ado, let’s simply count how many sins each side racks up. One point per sin, and may the best moral position win:
- I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me. While we can’t make sweeping generalizations about which side has a stronger faith in God, I’m pretty confident no one’s faith in God depends in any way on the Chief, or vice-versa. If so, I’d like to meet this person, as they probably have a lot of other interesting and surprising views as well. In any case, I don’t think this commandant applies. No sins for either side.
- Do not make idols. Clearly Anti-Chiefers are sin-free on this one, but I’m not so sure about Pro-Chiefers. The true believers are on some thin ice here when they claim the Chief symbolizes all that is good, that we should pay homage to and respect the Chief. Given a lot of the rhetoric one hears, and watching the faithful remove their hats and bow during the ceremony, the difference between worshipping a dancing man dressed in feathers and a Golden Calf on wheels is merely one of degree. I have to give Pro-Chiefers at least ½ a sin on this one, Anti-Chiefers escaping without any.
- Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. It is likely that true believers on both sides are rather liberal in their use of the Lord’s name in a non-positive way when referring to the other side of the debate. However, there is nothing in either side’s moral arguments that requires vain name taking, so we’ll let both sides off the hook on this one.
- Remember the Sabbath. The Anti-Chiefers seem to again be in the clear on this one. They may be Sabbath-breakers, but not because they are anti-Chief. However, regardless of whether Saturday or Sunday is your holy day, The Chief’s performances do occur on the Sabbath, and supporting the Chief performing on the Sabbath is a clear violation since it requires people to work on that day. Opponents: 0 sins. Supporters: 1 Sin, unless you believe the Chief’s performance are OK on the Sabbath because they are a religious ceremony, in which case, you score a sin for Commandment 1. Either way, it is one full sin for Pro-Chiefers.
- Honor your mother and father. Both sides likely do a fine job here, since being an Anti or Pro Chiefer often depends on how you were raised. 0 sins for both sides.
- Do not murder. Let’s hope neither side gets to collect this sin on this issue. Anti-Chiefers might claim that the overwhelmingly white participants in this tradition are beneficiaries of the systematic historical murder of Native Americans, and therefore should be more sensitive to the opinions of Native Americans. The thought here is that even if you didn’t kill someone to take their jewelry, but bought the jewelry at a steep discount knowing how it was acquired, you are nonetheless implicated in the immorality of the act. However, I don’t think this is what God was getting at for this particular commandment, so we’ll leave it at 0 sins for both sides.
- Do not commit adultery. I can’t see how this applies, unless some people see the dance as erotic and leading to this type of immoral behavior. I’ve not heard that complaint before, so it looks like Pro-Chiefers are clear on this one. I’ve also never seen any sort of fornication going on during protests, so it looks like Anti-Chiefers are safe on this one as well. 0 sins around.
- Do not steal. One could argue that Anti-Chiefers are trying to steal the University of Illinois tradition of the Chief. However, stealing is about wanting to have something of someone else’s, and not about wanting someone to stop doing something. I’d have to give Anti-Chiefers a clean bill on this, given that definition. However, Pro-Chiefers have to admit that the Chief tradition was clearly lifted from Native American culture, and that Native Americans in general want it back. I guess you could argue that it isn’t stealing if you parade it around and are unashamed of your actions. Or perhaps another tact is to argue that you got permission from one a distant relative to move into the house, so now the house is yours. Or you could argue that since your ancestors killed off everyone on the farm, and it is now empty, your moving in is not really stealing. All these seem to be rather slippery slopes to me. 1 full sin for Pro-Chiefers.
- Do not bear false witness. The rhetoric level on both sides is fairly deafening on this one. But does anyone tell outright lies? For brevity, let’s just consider the battle cries of both sides.
Anti-Chief: “Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize”. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement. The Chief is obviously a racial stereotype – supporters say as much when they say he represents all that is good about Native Americans. But, are not positive stereotypes a good thing? I personally don’t think so. I doubt that people jump out of bed ready to greet each day because others believe they are good dancers due to their skin tone, or smart because of the shape of their eyes. I have to conclude that the Anti-Chiefers are being truthful: 0 sins.
Pro-Chief: “The Chief is an Honorable Tradition”. Generally, honor requires that those who are being honored actually feel honor, instead of embarrassment or anger. Native Americans clearly don’t like white people dressing up like their forefathers so that other white people can get worked up at sporting events. Sure, it’s hard to understand why that might be the case, but that’s the way it is. It may want to be honorable, just as I would like to be handsome and charming, but that doesn’t make it so. However, because of intent, we’ll only give ½ a sin to Pro-Chiefers, for not really wanting to bear false witness, but doing so anyway.
- Do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, donkey, or anything else. Presumably, this commandment only applies to things, not necessarily actions. In this case, Anti-Chiefers covet an end to the tradition, and Pro-Chiefers covet its continuation. Call it 0 or 1 for each side, as they are pretty much the same. Let’s say 0 for both sides, since it looks like Pro-Chiefers could use a break from sinning at this point.
- Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. It doesn’t look like we’ll need this as a tie breaker after all, but let’s continue anyway, for the sake of completeness. Anti-Chiefers are trying to see the world from the eyes of Native Americans, who are pretty upset about the whole situation. They seem to be treating Native Americans in the way they want to be treated. So, clearly the Anti-Chiefers are not just passively living up to this rule, but actively trying to live it out. Pro-Chiefers, however, seem like they just can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar of sin. Supporting an action that is designed for someone’s benefit, but instead makes him or her angry, seems to me the opposite of what this rule is going after. Or, we could look at it in the opposite direction: Suppose Native Americans took all our houses by force, forced us to live in concentration camps, and forbid us to practice our religion. I guess in this hypothetical situation Pro-Chiefers would really enjoy it if a Native American dressed up like Jesus for ritualistic hunting trips and did a dance to honor us, and then ignored us when we said that Jesus is sacred to us, and should not be trivialized in this way. However, I don’t think that any reasonable person would actually believe this, so it ends up counting as yet another sin for supporters.
Well, there we have it. The surprising result seems to be: 4 sins for Pro-Chiefers, 0 sins for Anti-Chiefers. I’m not really sure which sport sinning most compares with, so I’m not sure how to interpret the score. If this were soccer or hockey, it would be a blowout. If it were baseball, just a solid win. If it were football, it would have been a really boring game.
Unfortunately, this is not good news at all for those who want both the 10 commandments AND Chief Illiniwek in schools. It looks like we need pretty much one or the other, or we’ll confuse the children. I think staying with the 10 commandments is a good choice here. Heck, we might want to roll out a big marble statue of it at football games, and cheer for it instead of the Chief, to get back into God’s good graces. In fact, I believe there is one available right now in Alabama, where marble statues are known to cause morality.
Lastly, it is surprising that the final score was so lopsided, given how sure both sides are of their moral rectitude. Perhaps another lesson for us all is that feeling strongly about something does not necessarily translate into it being right. That is, unless you are an Anti-Chiefer, apparently.