Adopting a tactic successfully used by the GEO in its campaign for recognition two years ago, anti-Chief activists have occupied the Swanlund administration building at the University of Illinois. Including several GEO members the group of 41 has now been inside for over 30 hours, possibly the longest sit-in in the history of the University. As I speak it has been announced that an agreement has been reached, and details will be announced at a press conference at 4pm (in two hours). I include below details of the talk given at yesterday’s rally by Matt Gordon of the GEO.
Abolish the “chief” mascot
The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) is committed to improving the working conditions of graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As an organization dedicated to social justice, GEO has fought for the fair and non-discriminatory treatment of all graduate employees. Almost a year ago today the GEO unanimously voted to support the end of “Chief Illiniwek” as a mascot and symbol of the University of Illinois because it is offensive and detrimental to our members, the Urbana-Champaign community, and people across the nation.
The GEO believes strongly that the continued use of “Chief Illiniwek” undermines the working conditions of graduate employees by first, negatively affecting recruitment and retention of Native American graduate students and faculty. Graduate teachers and researchers are deterred from working in an environment where they can expect harassment and even threats, especially if they are active around Native American political issues like the “Chief.” Further, it creates a hostile teaching environment in which the presence of the “Chief” undermines the academic mission of the university. The “Chief” works as a pedagogical impediment for graduate instructors who teach topics relating to Native Americans and other non-white groups. Because the “Chief” promotes narrow and stereotypical understandings of race and Native American culture, it not only hinders efforts to discuss race and ethnicity academically, but also undermines efforts to foster ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity in the classroom. Finally, having the “chief” mascot promotes a racist cultural climate on campus that impacts the lives of graduate employees in broader social and intellectual environments. For example, children of Native American graduate employees must attend a school system in the larger community where the “Chief’s” image sanctions and encourages racial taunting. In addition, the “Chief” negatively affects our members’ professional relationships with national and international academic associations, particularly those that focus on ethnicity and race. Further, we know that when one group is objectified, in this case Native Americans, other groups, such as international students, women, people of color, ethnic minorities, the differently-abled, as well as gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons, are more likely to experience similar abuses.
Mascots and representative symbols are meant to unite and inspire a group of self-identified people. The “Chief,” does not act as a unifying symbol and actively creates division, ill will, intolerance, and hostility on campus and in the broader community. By abolishing the “Chief,” the University of Illinois would remove a significant barrier to harmonious race relations on campus and improve the working conditions of graduate employees, faculty, and staff, and thereby improve the quality of undergraduate education.
In accordance with a unanimous vote during a 2002 membership meeting, the GEO calls for the Board of Trustees to remove “Chief Illiniwek” as the mascot and symbol of the University of Illinois. Further, we urge the university to support and fund a Native American Studies program and establish a Native American Cultural House that would recruit and retain talented students, faculty, and staff. Furthermore, these programs would support efforts to teach critical awareness of race, and promote cultural understanding and help develop more harmonious race relations on the UIUC campus and in the broader community. By taking such steps, the University of Illinois will demonstrate its commitment to education, diversity, and serving all people of the state of Illinois.