U. of Illinois Wonders if Vandals or Racists Damaged Indian Art





An outdoor exhibit of American Indian art is vandalized five times in two months. Are the culprits destructive students, racists, or both?

It depends whom you ask.

Beyond the Chief, a collection of street signs honoring different tribes, opened in February at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Within five weeks, vandals had bent the signs and — in an instance that suggests the culprit was either a poor speller or British — written in permanent marker: "Uh oh I vandalised this!"

Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies and curator of the exhibit, says that the campus has traditionally been unwelcoming to American Indians and that the tensions worsened after 2007. That was the year the university bowed to pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and scrapped the popular Chief Illiniwek mascot.

Edgar Heap of Birds, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma, is the artist behind the exhibit. He has been creating street-sign artwork for the past 20 years, and none has been defaced until now.

American Indian faculty members at Illinois asked Chancellor Richard H. Herman to condemn the vandalism as racist, something he has so far declined to do. He sent a campuswide e-mail message after the third incident, saying that an attack on one group is an attack on the university.


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Stephen Kaufman - 5/29/2009

You've got it quite wrong. The University of Illinois Board of Trustees did not "bow[ed] to pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association." For years, many Trustees wanted to remove the fake Indian mascot "Chief Illiniwek". Two governors (who appoint Trustees) intervened to keep the mascot and a general lack of backbone by the Trustees kept the decision dragging out. In the absence of backbone, the NCAA's ruling gave the Trustees an out and they adopted "the devil made me do it" ploy. This was unfortunate since it has led to hateful responses by some students and community members directed towards Native American students and faculty on the Urbana campus. The acts of vandalism on the art exhibition reported here are one of many such race based hate crimes the University continues to face and continues to fail to address for what they are. A little leadership from the University administration, especially from its Chancellor Richard Herman, would go a long way to constructively address this. Instead, Herman insists the marching band keep playing the Chief's dance music at half time and the juicing up of the crowds.