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Chief Illiniwek controversy prompts racism conversations


By Paul W. Widicus*

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (UMNS) - Controversy surrounding the use of United Methodist money to help remove Chief Illiniwek as a symbol of the University of Illinois sports program prompted 90 people to gather in Champaign for a "Talking Circle" Saturday, April 7.

Participants included United Methodists from churches in the area and members of the Native American United Methodists Fellowship of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

The controversy was sparked when the denomination's General Commission on Religion and Race, based in Washington, awarded a $10,000 grant to the Illinois chapter of the Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. The chapter, based in Champaign, opposes the use of Native Americans as sports symbols and mascots in general and specifically objects to the presence of Chief Illiniwek at University of Illinois sporting events.

Three weeks earlier, Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher invited about 40 leaders from the conference and representatives of the Commission on Religion and Race to a "common table" to discuss multi-racial relationships.

The Rev. Michael Eischen, superintendent of the church's Iroquois River District, said, the purpose of the Talking Circle was to inform participants about Native American culture, spirituality and the pain caused by stereotypes and race-based symbols.

"We have United Methodist brothers and sisters who wish to help us understand that they are one with us as disciples of Jesus Christ, but feel victimized when stereotypes painfully misrepresent who they are," Eischen said. " In my conversations with pastors and laity there is a growing consensus that we need to hear the faith stories of Native American United Methodists in a setting conducive to learning."

The event, held at Champaign's First United Methodist Church, began with multicultural worship. Eischen set the stage by acknowledging that much has been said since the grant was made about the church, the university, and racism. "It seems to me Native American voices have not been heard clearly. We are here to learn about their culture and heritage with our minds open and our hearts softened so we can hear each others' pain."

The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, a United Methodist pastor and missionary, and Liz Reis, chairperson of the Native American Fellowship led the worship and time of learning. Music, prayers and reflections from both cultures merged to move persons into a time of reflection on past and present racism.

That a wide variety of Native American cultures exists was new information for many of the participants. Leaders reported that there are 563 recognized Native American tribes in North America, each with its own distinct culture, language, dress, music and art.

Video clips were shown to illustrate how stereotypes about Native Americans pervade the U.S. culture.

"Racism is a complex set of social, religious, and economic forces that conspire to produce perceived racial differences," said the Rev. Danny Lybarger, pastor of Hoopeston United Methodist Church.

He said U.S. racism began with the conquest of the continent by Europeans looking for land. It has been estimated that in 1492 there were 112 million indigenous people on the North American continent. In 1900 there were only about 250,000.

Two members of the Native American Fellowship shared their spiritual and faith journeys. Chip Roberts, Cherokee, told of his journey from the sacredness of the drum beat as the heart beat of all life, to the Bible, to finding Jesus Christ, to being baptized.

Kim Reis, a young prayer warrior, told of her journey from a dream about a jingle dancer, to her vision, to her training in prayers for healing, to her call to dance in prayer for others in the name of Jesus Christ.

Her mother, Liz Reis, explained, "When we put on the dance regalia we are preparing for worship. When we put feathers in our hair each is done with prayer. Paint on our faces is an honor we train and work for over years and is only given through a vision."

She said Chief Illiniwek's putting on paint, feathers, and other regalia and entering the sacred circle to dance is a desecration of that which is spiritual.

Participants broke into 10 Talking Circles where each could hold a Talking Stick and share their feelings and opinions without interruption.

One participant expressed a need for "healing and wholeness to the land." Another said he had learned a lot more about racism because of the controversy.

A "compromise that would allow Chief Illiniwek to honor Native Americans," was suggested. One participant spoke to the issue of land ownership. "Should we do away with everything that offends someone," somebody asked. The dance performed by Chief Illliniwek at sporting events has lost its meaning if it hurts people, one person said. But, another asked, "If it (the dance) is not authentic, what is wrong with it?"

To conclude the day, insights from the Talking Circles were shared and everyone joined in a multi-cultural service of Holy Communion.

In conclusion, Eastin said the event was not about the chief or the grant. "It is about the long-term relationship between United Methodists and Native Americans. What we do now is critical. Our response to this issue could cause Native American people to turn and walk away because their decision to participate could hinge on our response to racism."

Eischen said the event was significant because the Native Americans who participated are United Methodists. "As a denomination, conference and local churches we must hear the pain we experience because of Chief Illiniwek."

The Talking Circle was sponsored by Iroquois River District United Methodists and members of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference Native American Fellowship which meets regularly in Peoria.

Talking Circles are also scheduled for United Methodists of the Embarras River District at Mattoon First United Methodist Church April 21 and United Methodists of the Okaw River District at Decatur First United Methodist Church May 12. Both events begin at 9 a.m.

In her invitations to the earlier March 19 meeting, Christopher said, the controversy around the Commission on Religion and Race grant has given the people of Illinois "an opportunity to go deeper in their understanding of multi-racial relationships and make new decisions about how they are going to live together as an inclusive human family."

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*Widicus is director of communications for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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