Newsletter 69: Chief Illiniwek

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from August 2017, about my humble alma mater’s former “mascot.” With college sports season about to begin again, it seemed a good time to reiterate this.

On Thursday night, word leaked that the University of Illinois was retiring its “War Chant” musical cue, used by the Illini Marching Band to fire up Illini students and fans — particularly when the opponent in a football game is facing a third down — for as long as anyone can remember.

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If you don’t know the “War Chant,” you can hear it here on Spotify, or watch it here. The song obviously has its foundation in the history of Illini athletics using Native American imagery and “symbols” to promote their athletic program, and it’s essentially Illinois’ version of the Atlanta Braves’ Tomahawk Chop. In college, back when none of us knew anything, we simply called it “the Indian song.” My friend Ali even came up with lyrics. “This is … the Indian song … there are no words to the Indian song.”

When I was a kid, this song always got me fired up for Illini sports, the same way that the dance that Chief Illiniwek, the Illini mascot who was banned more than a decade ago, always did. I loved those things when I was young because I didn’t know any better. Being young means only knowing your own perspective and that of those directly around you; it is, in the purest sense of the word, a privilege. The thing about growing up and growing older is that you are supposed to learn that you are not the only person in the world, that just because you believe something doesn’t necessarily make it true, that the planet is a lot larger and contains a lot more people with a lot wider spectrum of perspectives than you have.

To me, this was what college was for. I came to college loving Chief Illiniwek and the War Chant, and I left thinking both of them had to go. I’ve written about the exact moment I stopped supporting Chief Illiniwek before; I’ll reprint the relevant passage here:

One day I and a few other editors at the Daily Illini had to meet with members of the Illinois Pan-Hellenic Council. After the meeting — and college kids should never, ever have to sit in meetings — one blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Norse bro wearing a backwards baseball cap pulled me aside.

“Hey, what’s up, I’m the Chief.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I see your basketball stories in the paper all the time. I’m the Chief, yo. Fuckin’-A, right?”

I turned to a fellow editor at the paper. “I think I hate the Chief now.”

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This realization led to other realizations, and then others, and then I thought about the world in an entirely different way. This is not because college radicalized me. It’s because going to college introduced me to viewpoints and arguments I had never encountered before. One cannot walk into a room assuming one is correct about everything and thus immune to any opposite arguments; I honestly think part of the job of being a human is to constantly keep questioning everything. It’s the same thing living in New York City for 13 years did, and living in Athens for more than four years has: It has helped me see the world differently, every day, because I’ve met people who didn’t grow up in the exact same circumstance and location that I did. I would argue this is growing up. This is what it means to try to be an adult. I’ve not always been successful; I’ve probably failed more often than not. But you’ve got to keep trying.

It feels like one of the main issues with our current discourse is that we have all dug in our heels. I wonder if it’s partly related to the infinite amount of information we have at our fingertips at any moment. It’s as if we all just decided, when it was made clear just how little we knew and how much there was to know, that we had to impose a limit of knowledge on ourselves: We’re gonna stop here right here, we’re full, thanks.

Losing the “War Chant” song — apparently the band played it at a soccer game Thursday night and were told to stop — is something, 25 years ago, is something that would have infuriated me. But I know more about the world now than I did then. I still feel a little stir when I hear the song, even watching the clips of it while writing this newsletter. But it’s not just about me, and how I feel. If you are angry they are getting rid of the song, you have three options:

1. You can try to learn why the University would want to get rid of the song and all its Native American imagery from throughout its history;
2. You can be temporarily bummed about it but drop it because you like Illinois sports and they’re about to start playing games;
3. You can be angry about it forever.

I don’t understand the utility of № 3. I don’t know why anyone would want that. The planet’s a great big place. Learning more about it, and understanding it from angles you didn’t have the opportunity or perspective when you were younger, to me is one of the great joys of life. It’s tough to change; believe me, I’m still listening to Pavement records. But it’s also exciting. There’s a whole world out there. Let’s go.

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