Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots

Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots

Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots

Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots


Sports fans love to don paint & feathers to cheer on the Washington Redskins & the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles, & the Warriors & Chiefs of their hometown high schools. But outside the stadiums, American Indians aren't cheering--they're yelling racism. School boards & colleges are bombarded with emotional demands from both sides, while professional teams find themselves in court defending the right to trademark their Indian names & logos. In the face of opposition by a national anti-mascot movement, why are fans so determined to retain the fictional chiefs who plant flaming spears & dance on the fifty-yard line? To answer this question, Dancing at Halftime takes the reader on a journey through the American imagination where our thinking about American Indians has been, & is still being, shaped. Dancing at Halftime is the story of Carol Spindel's determination to understand why her adopted town is so passionately attached to Chief Illiniwek, the American Indian mascot of the University of Illinois. She rummages through our national attic, holding dusty souvenirs from world's fairs & wild west shows, Edward Curtis photographs, Boy Scout handbooks, & faded football programs up to the light. Outside stadiums, while American Indian Movement protestors burn effigies, she listens to both activists & the fans who resent their attacks. Inside hearing rooms & high schools, she poses questions to linguists, lawyers, & university alumni. A work of both persuasion & compassion, Dancing at Halftime reminds us that in America, where Pontiac is a car & Tecumseh a summer camp, Indians are often our symbolic servants, functioning as mascots & metaphors that express our longings to become "native" Americans, & to feel at home in our own land.


A friend of mine says Americans lack a sense of place. An environmentalist and geographer, he is a person who has grown up, been educated, married, raised a family, and buried a son on the same patch of prairie. the rest of us? We are nomads, nostalgic for the place where we grew up and unattached to the place where we live. This lack of attachment to place makes us, he maintains, neglectful stewards. We don't wince when ancient trees are cut to widen a street because they aren't the trees we played under as children. While the wrecking ball destroys historic buildings, we walk by—our grandmothers never shopped there. He would like us to quit pining for faraway places and attach ourselves, barnacle-like, where we actually live.

The horizon line on an autumn day, the silhouette of a grain elevator, the sound of corn growing—none of these quickens my pulse. When friends drop their voices to a hush about these things, I know they're real midwesterners. Perhaps my children will feel that way. They never remark on the wind like I do. They have never lived any place where the air is still.

Fourteen years ago the Harpies of Geographic Dislocation snatched me out of Berkeley, a place I had chosen, and set me down in the cornfields. I knew they were laughing, their wild hair whirling in the high-altitude winds, their long bony fingers cradling globes and sextants as they unrolled their topographic maps to search out the most unsuitable possibility. They had me cornered. Stay where I had chosen to live, or stay married and go where my husband could get a job. I moved to Urbana, Illinois.

Of course, in a Greek drama, you don't incur the wrath of the Harpies arbitrarily. You have to anger the gods through some act of arrogance. I, too, had . . .

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