Purging Indian Culture May Backfire

By Douglas, George H. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 19, 1993 | Go to article overview

Purging Indian Culture May Backfire


Douglas, George H., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Around the country American Indians have raised strong opposition to the use of relics of Indian culture for purposes of entertainment and celebration by white Americans - most of whom are only superficially knowledgeable about Indian traditions and ways.

There have been demands for the abandonment of Indian signs, logos, chants, mascots, costumes and, above all, the impersonation of Indians by white people.

Teaching as I do at the University of Illinois, I have heard a lot of the argument pro and con. Not only do we use the name Illini, borrowed from a former Midwest tribe of that name, but we apply the term to members of our sports teams, to students and faculty. We have an Indian logo that appears on T-shirts, caps, cocktail glasses and everything else imaginable. Most troubling to American Indians in the student body, we have a mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who performs a vigorous dance at football and basketball games.

The chief has had more than his share of detractors in recent years, and the borrowing of Indian names, symbols and artifacts has come under scrutiny in other places - as the repeated flaps over the names and logos of professional sports teams like the Washington Redskins attest. What should we think about it all?

I'm among those who feel that American Indians have a genuine grievance. There are many who look on the impersonation of American Indians by whites as degrading, no different from the blackface routines in minstrel shows and vaudeville. Critics have also pointed out that most of the other borrowings from their culture are imprecise and inaccurate.

And who is to doubt them? The American Indian culture has been so whittled down, trivialized and commercially packaged that few people would know what an Indian dance or headdress was really like.

On the hand, it is important to recall that the original attempts to hold the vestiges of Indian culture were not intended as insults; indeed, going well back into the last century, there had been strong attempts by the white culture to salvage for posterity what was best in Indian ways. For the most part, Indian culture has been treated kindly in our history, even if the Indians themselves have not been treated kindly. Many attempts have been made to preserve something of Indian wisdom about nature and the universe. …

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