From cartoonish Indian caricatures to the tomahawk chop, the imagery of hugely popular sports teams like the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves have played a pivotal role in the symbolic depiction of Native American culture. In In Whose Honor?, filmmaker Jay Rosenstein focuses on the story of Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian whose campaign against Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois’ beloved team mascot, turned a college town upside down and made many people rethink the larger issues of culture and identity. In Whose Honor? will air nationally Tuesday, July 15 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
“It was a story that needed to be told,” says Rosenstein, who began the film when he was a graduate student in broadcast journalism at the University of Illinois. “The whole controversy of getting rid of the Chief was front page news, but the other side was never reported. When Charlene first spoke up, it was like she was from Mars. Now some people call her the Native American Rosa Parks.”
Teters moved with her family from Santa Fe, NM, to Champaign-Urbana, IL, to enroll as a graduate student in the University of Illinois’ Department of Art. In 1988, she took her two children to the school’s Fighting Illini basketball game.
Just as it has been occurring for over 63 years, a student dressed as the team’s mascot, the fictitious Chief Illiniwek, leapt and twirled in what was billed at the time as an authentic dance, as fans in mock war paint yelled war chants from the stands. Teters and her children cringed in their seats. “I saw my daughter try to become invisible. My son tried to laugh,” she says in the film, her voice cracking with emotion. “It still makes me angry because I know they are hurting other people when they do that. And I knew that I couldn’t be here and not address that issue.” Teters began picketing outside the stadium, despite harassment from jeering students and unsympathetic administration officials.
Many of the University’s trustees, alumni, and students see the Chief in another light. “I can’t imagine that the Chief, who deports himself with such dignity, and such solemnity…can be perceived as a racial insult or slur,” says Susan Gravenhorst, a University trustee. Jeff Beckham, a student who actually performed as the Chief says, “The purpose of Chief Illiniwek, I pretty much see as two-fold. The first is that it helps us remember the people who lived on this land long before the university was ever dreamed of, and the second reason is to really honor those people.”
In Whose Honor? traces the history of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois, and other popular depictions of Native Americans in school athletics and professional sports franchises across the country. The film follows Teters’ evolution from mother and student into a leading national voice against the merchandising of Native American symbols and shows the lengths fans will go to preserve their mascots. It also draws connections to other historical examples of stereotyped imagery such as Little Black Sambo and Frito Bandito.
In 1994, University alumnus Rick Winkel, while a candidate for the Illinois state legislature, announced that he would introduce a state law guaranteeing Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois. Winkel, who was elected by a solid majority says, “Chief Illiniwek has become a revered symbol for the vast majority of current students and alumni. In 1995 the Chief Illiniwek Bill passed by an overwhelming majority. Governor Jim Edgar later vetoed the bill and while Rick Winkel’s attempt to override the veto failed, today Chief Illiniwek is still the University’s symbol.
“Our people paid with their very lives to keep what little we have left…and that is what I am protecting. At home, we are taught to respect eagle feathers, respect the Chiefs, respect that paint is sacred, that dance is something sacred to us,” Teters explains. “If you’ve never been taught to respect these things, it might not bother you…But if you’ve grown up in the community, where those things have meaning, it’s going to have that impact on you.”