Comment: Starving Rocks and Dancing Mascots

Article excerpt

If one grew up in central Illinois during the late 1940s and 1950s, Starved Rock was a special place. For schoolboys interested in the history of the region, Starved Rock and its accompanying legends added a significant dose of romance, danger, and excitement to a landscape that was verdantly fertile, but unremittingly flat, monotonous, and filled with cornfields. Of course Abe Lincoln had split logs at New Salem and had walked the streets of Springfield, but he was a tall, gaunt, sad-faced man always pictured in sober, black clothing. Lincoln seemed to impress grownups, but for pre-adolescent boys he remained a vague historical figure whose photograph stared down on stuffy classrooms from its perch above the chalkboard: someone to supposedly be respected, but whose life seemed vague and tragic, and whose exploits lacked the excitement that fueled childhood fantasies.

Starved Rock was different. According to the legend the valiant ("brave, but gentle") Illinois tribespeople had been surrounded and besieged atop the towering sandstone edifice by cruel, more warlike Indians from northern Illinois (as residents of downstate Illinois we all were convinced they were from Chicago). In our mind's eye we could picture Illinois warriors shooting arrows at their enemies, while women and children attempted to lower gourds down to the river on vines (acquired from who knows where) to scoop up water to slake their families'thirst. Arrows flew, musket balls were fired, and war cries resounded over the river, but in the end the noble Illinois perished, either dying of starvation, or weakened by hunger, and slain by their enemies. Thus passed the last of the tribe who had given their name to our state and whom we believed had occupied the region since time immemorial.

The Illinois were "our" Indians. They were not recent "Johnny Come-Latelys" who had just moved in (via the "Dells") from Wisconsin. They belonged to us and were part of "our history." Unlike the Potawatomis, Winnebagos, or Sacs and Foxes who had forsaken Illinois to remove to more western or northern regions, the legend of Starved Rock assured us that the Illinois tribe (s) had died at Starved Rock rather than fleeing to foreign states or territories. (Of course we were either blissfully ignorant of, or conveniently chose to overlook that hundreds of Illinois tribespeople, like many other Indians, had initially removed to Missouri and Kansas, before settling permanently in northeastern Oklahoma.) Starved Rock was part of our heritage. As Illinoisans, we reveled in the romantic glory of the tale. It belonged to us.

And so, to most Illinoisans, did Chief Illiniwek. How fitting that a symbol of the state's romanticized past had become the icon of the "Fighting Illini," those twentieth-century gridiron and hardwood warriors who carried on the battle for honor and glory in the Illinois heartland; and if the earlier Illinois tribespeople had fallen to invading tribes, at least the spirit of these noble martyrs now manifested itself in"the Chief,"who rallied the new Illinois faithful to pigskin splendor. Most Illinoisans cared little that the modern manifestation of an Illinois war chief was essentially adorned in a Plains Indian "costume," performed a choreographed dance routine more reminiscent of the Rockettes than any tribal tradition, and bore about as much resemblance to a historical Illinois warrior as Bo Derek does to Bo Diddley. For generations of Illinoisans steeped in the stereotypes of western movies, pulp fiction, or other manifestations of mid-nineteenth-century popular culture, "the Chief" admirably met the demand for a sanitized, two -dimensional figure to serve both as an emblem of the state's idealized past, and as an icon of identification for current residents with strong ties and loyalties to"the Prairie State. …