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Mascot Controversy

What a great way for a reservation-based community organization to start its week, with a call from a potential donor making a pledge to donate $1,000 toward the work being done.

What started out as a good week for this organization ended up being a week filled with calls and e-mails from a concerned Native American community about the controversy brewing over the donation from C.H.I.E.F.

When we were contacted by the representative of C.H.I.E.F., they seemed like they were a group of citizens who were truly concerned with the issues facing our indigenous community.

They located us on the Internet through our website www.nativeshop.org. It seemed innocent enough: who wouldn’t want to help in a community that has a 57% unemployment rate, with 70% of the people over the age of 40 suffering from diabetes? Our community has one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol births, and some of the highest rates of cancer in the community. In addition, there are many related issues, concerning violence against women.

Our organization, The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, is based on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Our programs address these issues by working with women and children, and providing services through our Domestic Violence Shelter and Resource Center. We have afterschool programs for youth. We address Native women’s reproductive rights issues, environmental issues, and last year we provided 27,000 pounds of food to the community through our Food Pantry. We are in the trenches of these issues, always seeking the development of new friends, sisters, and allies to assist us in meeting the needs of our community.

Thus, when we were initially contacted by C.H.I.E.F., we felt the establishment of some new allies willing to support the important issues targeted by our work. It appeared they were extending a ‘heartfelt’ handshake. However, we were eventually informed that the group is really an organization in support of the continued use of the Chief Illiniwek, mascot of the University of Illinois, which has generated so much racial controversy over the years. I felt sickened that this group would go to such an extent as to co-opt Native American people to justify and to perpetuate their continued use of this negative stereotype. C.H.I.E.F., you have hurt the people in my community, and you have dishonored yourself.

Dehumanizing Native American people, in order to promote your cause through deceptive tactics, exhibits the tragedy of the entire issue, and this time you have gone too far to save your racist mascot. You have left the campus of the University of Illinois and you have insidiously encroached into my community to perpetrate a fraud to buoy up the mascot issue. You have diminished our efforts, as Native Americans, to erase stereotypes and negative images, which have hurt the very people for whom your so-called humanitarian gesture was intended.

As the Executive Director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, I will not accept your $1,000 contribution, even though that amount would boost our Food Pantry efforts, provide food and utilities for our shelter for two months, and take women and children off the streets away from abusive homes and homelessness.

Charon Asetoyer

February 1999

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