Preposterous Universe

Monday, March 28, 2005

Another great American holiday is upon us: the Final Four. In which the flower of our nation's youth, in the form of the best men's college basketball teams in the land, engage in fierce combat for hoops supremacy.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is easily one of the most entertaining sports events we have, far surpassing the overhyped Super Bowl for actual excitement. The one-and-done format with sixty-five teams leads to thrilling games, especially because on any given night some plucky underdogs can get it together to topple a heavily favored basketball power. Except, of course, when you have to play seven-on-five, because the referees are blantantly against you. Such an episode occured on Friday, when the valiant Wildcats of Villanova were completely robbed in their upset bid against haughty North Carolina, when the referee hallucinated a traveling violation against Allan Ray in the final seconds. The Tar Heels will go on to play Michigan State on Saturday.

The other game will feature Louisville against the University of Illinois. The latter is the state university of my adoptive home, so I should be rooting for them. But I won't. The reason why is a long-standing embarassment that the university refuses to abandon: the tradition of Chief Illiniwek dancing around at halftime.

As you might expect, there are those who take offense at some white college student in face paint and fake feathers pretending to be a Native American chieftain (who never really existed) in order to fire up the fans at a basketball game. There are others who smirk at this excess of political correctness, and will argue with a straight face that the Chief is actually honoring the strength and determination of the native tribes of Illinois.

Except, here's the funny thing. It's kind of hard to argue that the Chief's dance is in honor of Native Americans, if you look at the history of the thing. You see, the Chief's halftime show dates back to 1927, a time when the Civilization Act of 1819 was still law. You remember the Civilization Act, don't you? Among other things, it made it illegal for any actual Native Americans to perform their own tribal dances, since that amounted to a practice of their religion, which was banned. (Thanks to Philip Phillips for telling me about some of the history.) So, it's hard to construe the dancing white guy in face paint as anything other than an offensive caricature.

Everyone knows this; the faculty and the student goverment of the university have voted resoundingly to drop the Chief as their mascot. Not to mention Native American groups, of course. These bodies, unfortunately, are not the ones of primary importance to the university trustees; and the alumni (who donate money) love the Chief. And Native Americans don't have nearly the visibility or clout that other groups have; it's easy enough to imagine the uproar if various other racial stereotypes were used as sporting mascots.

Who knows, maybe the heightened publicity from the Final Four will finally force Illinois to do something about the Chief. That was Larry Summers' secret plan to get people talking about women in science, wasn't it?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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