What can Chief Illiniwek tell us about American citizenship?

In one of my other classes, we recently watched “In Whose Honor”—a documentary speaking on the long contested issue of Native American sports mascots across the United States.  The film followed Native American graduate student, Charlene Teters, as she protested the University’ of Illinois’ infamous “Chief Illiniwek” mascot.  Since her struggle began in 1989, it has expanded into a considerable movement.  It has succeeded in many American university’s abandonment of their Native American mascots.   You can check out a short clip I found.

I think it gives you fairly good idea of what this film was about.

The reason I bring this video to the attention of the blog, is because I think it presents a fairly modern social issue from which we can expand our discussion on citizenship.   Further, it directs our attention onto a group of people—Native Americans—that I think are another viable “outsider” from which we can attempt to discern the restrictions on American citizenship. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any edited clips that cover the specific sections of the documentary I thought were most relevant.  As a result, I have instead transcribed one quote that I thought particularly spoke to our discussion of citizenship.

“I was afraid to sacrifice my student status by speaking up.  I knew that I would be alone.  I would be standing out, completely alone”—Charlene Teters

Although Charlene Teters was aware of her university’s Native American mascot, she had never actually attended a sporting event until she was invited to a basketball game in 1989.  It was there that she was first exposed to, and deeply offended by, the performance of the “Chief.”  However, despite her immediately negative reaction, Charlene conveyed that she struggled for a considerable time before she decided to mobilize a public opposition.  As this quote speaks to, this was because Charlene was concerned that she would lose her standing as a University of Illinois’ student.  Affirming Shklar’s theory that citizenship is the product of one’s social standing and public respect, Charlene was worried her actions would render her “completely alone.”

Why is it that at such a large university—presumably one with thousands of diverse students—that Charlene was so concerned that speaking up for her feelings as a Native American would make her “stand out?” On our own campus today, do we not regularly see protests and soap box speeches as we walk through the diag to class? Do we not still consider those individuals inside of our own student body? And if we do, then what makes their causes so much more socially acceptable than Charlene’s?  Ultimately, the answer comes down to the implications that those actions have on one’s status.  Unlike the student activists we see lobbying for broad social issues like the ‘go green’ movement, Charlene set out to challenge the very symbol and ideal that predicated the identity of the University of Illinois.  Her movement entirely undermined the  stability and tradition of the very group to which she belonged.  She no longer had the respect of the public—the student body—largely because her views spoke in disrespect of their own tradition.

Before anyone quickly disagrees or dismisses Charlene’s concerns as over dramatic, consider how you behave as a member of the Michigan student body. Can you really imagine extending a hand of belonging to a student screaming out against the “Wolverines?”  Standing in the massive student section at Michigan football games, do we not inherently view all those not cheering in the spirit of “maize and blue” as our enemies or rivals? More than that, what unity would there be in our own student body if we no longer were the “Wolverines?”

Charlene found herself having to make a choice between protecting her individual Native American identity and preserving her inclusion as a member of the University of Illinois student body.  As she put it, it really was a decision of “sacrifice.”  Like American citizenship is strictly binary—you are either inside or you are outside—so was Charlene’s student status. Along with many other conditions—college essays, a certain GPA, ability to pay tuition etc.—being a student at the University of Illinois presupposed one’s loyalty to its specific tradition.  In other words, Charlene’s “insider” status was conditioned on her willingness to embrace and support the spirit of “Chief Illiniwek.”  Similarly, as we have been discussing throughout these past few weeks in class, American citizenship bears with it its own set of conditions. Whatever these conditions might be—Shklar says earning and the right to vote—they matter because they characterize an individual’s status.  Status matters—or at least according to Shklar’s theory—because its condition is the primary determinant of citizenship .

Ultimately, Charlene had correctly put her faith in Shklar.  When she began protesting against “Chief Illiniwek” her existence at the University of Illinois became an ironic juxtaposition of invisibility and hateful exclusion. As she took to the streets at tailgates, the documentary pictured countless scenes of spirited fans entirely ignoring her presence.  Just like Shklar said that unemployment makes a person a “nobody,” Charlene’s failure to affirm the conditions of her own membership likewise yielded her lack of existence.  However, it also engendered a period of incredibly hatred.  As Charlene was stripped of her status as a University of Illinois’ student, she was immediately pushed to the outside.  Her standing as a comrade was replaced with that of a foreigner or enemy.  Like the rivals against which we “boo” in the Big House, Charlene became the like target of heavy insult and injury.  The influence her status had on her ability to belong was so incredible—just as Shklar argues it is for American citizenship—that virtually overnight she became the recipient of death threats and hate crimes.

By official standards, Charlene was still a student at the University of Illinois—she was still paying tuition, attending classes, and fulfilling grade requirements. Yet, at the same time, she was also undoubtedly very much on the outside.  Why is this? Can it really be possible for a person to be a student but not to be seen as a student? If Charlene were to have been asked her occupation, wouldn’t she be correct to say that she was a student at the University of Illinois? The answer to all of the above is yes! As Shklar’s theory inadvertently argues, the quality or state of citizenship is one of duality.  Most obviously, it is obtained by satisfying a set list of conditions.  By this I am referring to that literal checklist of things someone has to do to get in. For example, to be naturalized as an American citizen, amongst other things, you have to be at least eighteen years old, have a green card, and have lived within the country for five years. In Charlene’s case, getting student status meant fulfilling admissions requirements like a GPA minimum and completing an application.

However, beyond the obvious, citizenship is also a condition of standing or public status.  There is a set of invisible conditions that even those legally on the inside must fulfill in order for their genuine recognition as members to be full-ranging.  For American citizenship, Shklar says these conditions are the right to vote and earning.  In the eyes of the law, Charlene was a student at the University of Illinois, just like stay at home moms and the unemployed are American citizens—they have all met the criteria of the basic checklist.  However, according to Shklar’s theory, for failure of actively accumulating wealth, stay at home moms and the jobless aren’t really viewed as citizens within the mentality of American society.  They are outsiders because these invisible conditions degrade their status within the group—they become incapable of existing on an equal platform with that of their fellow countrymen.  In this same way, for Charlene to have the respected status as a student of the University of Illinois—not just the technical or legal label—she had to fulfill similarly disguised requirements.  Earning was to Shklar, what honoring “Chief Illiniwek” (the school mascot) was to Charlene.  There is room to debate what these hidden conditions might be—we’ve made many good arguments for and against those that Shklar suggested.  However, regardless, standing is undoubtedly an inherent determinant of citizenship.

(Lauren Gilezan)

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2 Responses to What can Chief Illiniwek tell us about American citizenship?

  1. hadasbrown says:

    The analogy you draw upon is extremely thought-provoking. I actually viewed the documentary for another class as well, and agree with where you’re coming from. This also complicates Shklar’s theory, because she never accounts for conformity to public opinion as being necessary or unecessary for citizenship with regard to standing. Charlene’s struggle reflects that of many, who fear losing their standing and facing near oppression as a punishment for failing to go with the norm.

  2. Kirsten Meeder says:

    I think that this post brings up interesting questions about outsiders in society, just as the Harry Potter post did. As an Illinoisan, I remember reading about this issue in the news and how people on both sides were discussing it. The very fact that a race can be a “mascot” for a university is very disconcerting and demonstrates how said race is abused and placed in the role of “the other”.

    This post is also topical because another Native American scandal is currently being debated with Urban Outfitters which has been selling Navajo styled items. Story at: http://jezebel.com/urban-outfitters-navajo/

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