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Church funds support elimination of Illinois sports symbol

2/2/2001

By United Methodist News Service

A United Methodist agency has given a financial boost to efforts by Native American groups to eliminate Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of the sports program at the University of Illinois- Champaign.

Church offices in the state and elsewhere began getting calls from irate church members and fans Jan. 29, when the Illinois Chapter of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media (NCRSM-IL) announced that it had received a $10,000 grant from the denomination to help them oust the popular sports symbol.

The grant came from the church's Commission on Religion and Race. The Rev. Chester Jones, staff executive for the Washington-based agency, told United Methodist News Service that the grant is consistent with the actions of the church's General Conference and fits guidelines for the Minority Group Self Determination Fund administered by the commission.

In recent years, between 60 and 70 grants have been made totaling about $800,000, Jones said. Money for the grants comes from the church's World Service Fund.

"These grant applications are considered carefully by a group of 12 governing members of the commission," Jones explained. "These are people elected to the commission from across the church. They assure that applications meet guidelines and are consistent with the mission of the commission." Grant applications are shared with leadership of the respective annual conferences before they are made, he noted, but their approval is not required.

The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference Committee on Native American Ministries and a Native American worshiping fellowship in Peoria, Ill., had earlier endorsed and supported NCRSM-IL, according to Carol Lakota Eastin, recently commissioned by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries as director for Native American ministries for the conference.

The Rev. Kenneth Deere, a member of the Muscogee Creek tribe in Oklahoma, serves as a staff liaison with the commission group that approves the grants. "The purpose of the fund is to empower and provide self-determination for ethnic minority people," he explained. "About 40 percent of the grants are given to ethnic minority local churches, 20 percent to community projects which have at least half of their governing board members who are ethnic minority, and 40 percent is given to the four major ethnic minority caucuses in the church." All the projects requesting support must be controlled and implemented by ethnic minority people, he noted.

Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher of Springfield, Ill., acknowledged that the grant was in keeping with a resolution approved by the church's 1996 General Conference and reaffirmed by the most recent General Conference in May. The top legislative body of nearly 1,000 voting delegates is the only group that can speak officially for the entire church.

The statement in the church's 2000 Book of Resolutions says, in part, "... [W]e strongly believe the continued use of Native American nicknames is demeaning and racist, we urge all United Methodists-related universities, colleges and schools to set an example by replacing any nicknames that demean and offend our Native American sisters and brothers; and we support efforts throughout our society to replace such nicknames, mascots, and symbols."

Christopher and her cabinet addressed the issue again in a subsequent letter to members in the area. "We must respect the commission's endeavor to fulfill the mandate given to it by the General Conference to address the issues of racism in our church and society. Surely there is a consensus among us that racism in all its forms must be eradicated from our civil and faith communities."

She suggested that United Methodists consider the General Conference action as an "invitation to gather for dialogue with one another on the matters pertaining to racism which have been raised for us. ... If we soften the rhetoric and engage in conversation, this moment of conflict may, in God's time and our time, become an opportunity for building community."

The bishop called for United Methodists in the area to gather around "common tables with our Native American brothers and sisters for opportunities of listening and learning, maximizing this moment which God, through the action of our General Commission on Religion and Race, has placed before us."

After reaffirming the 1996 general statement about Native American sports mascots, General
Conference delegates in May took specific aim at the Cleveland Indians' "Chief Wahoo." Voting 610-293, the delegates called the caricature demeaning and urged church agencies to enter into dialogue with owners of the baseball team. No such dialogue has occurred. Some delegates and visitors to the Cleveland conference left the scene of the 10-day event to protest Chief Wahoo during an Indians home game. Thirteen of the 992 delegates to the conference were Native Americans. The United Methodist Church counts among its 8.4 million U.S. members about 19,000 Native Americans.

Chief Illiniwek is described on the university's Web site as "one of the most dramatic and dignified traditions in college athletics." Illiniwek (pronounced "ill-EYE-nih-wek") was the name of the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. The French changed the ending to "ois" in naming what became the state of Illinois. The Web site notes that since 1927 the symbol has "stirred pride and respect" in sports audiences.

Not everyone agrees. Eastin, a Lakota tribal member who lives in Peoria, objects because Chief Illinewek is portrayed by a white man who takes the name of an Illinois Indian tribe and is dressed in Plains Indian clothing. Historical inaccuracy is one matter, but Eastin said she is most offended by the halftime performance, which shows insensitivity to the role dance plays in Native American culture.

"The criticism I hear most often from our people is that the university is taking a ceremonial dance, a prayer tradition, and using it to support or cheer on a sports team." She said a growing number of Native Americans are trying to revive their dance traditions within their families. "They're teaching their children proper dance styles for their tribes; that we walk into dance circles in an attitude of prayer. When we see someone who is not Native American doing an improper dance for an improper purpose, that's offensive."

Eastin said such insensitivity is particularly hurtful in Illinois, where all Native American people were forcibly removed and where no reservation land exists. "The Indian people who live here struggle for recognition as even existing in the first place" she said.

Michael Krost, annual conference lay leader from Chillicothe and leader of the conference delegation to the 2000 General Conference, said he welcomes dialogue on the issue in hopes of identifying what is racism and racist and what is not. "In the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, there are lots of people who are alumni of the University of Illinois. Those members are very loyal to their mascot and their school. I'm not sure many see Chief Illiniwek as a racist figure."

Elizabeth Reis, a Cherokee who is chairwoman of the conference Committee on Native American Ministries, lives seven miles from the university where she worked for 11 years. "Many times our people don't speak out, and therefore it is said that they don't care one way or another about an issue such as Chief Illiniwek," she said. "Being in the Native American community and in contact with Native Americans across the country, I know that's not the case. They are very hurt by this."

Reis, who travels the powwow circuit with her daughter, says dress, makeup and dance are critical issues related to the University of Illinois sports mascot. "When we see not only the chief but fans painting their faces, that is hurtful."

She welcomes dialogue proposed by conference leaders but said that means listening. "When you have dialogue, it really only works when both sides are listening. On Native American issues, I'm not sure there has really been dialogue. People are speaking, but they are not being heard. When I say, 'I'm hurt,' and then you say, 'You're not hurt,' then you haven't heard me."

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