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Dancing at Halftime

Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots

Carol Spindel

Publication Year: 2000

Sports fans love to don paint and feathers to cheer on the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles, and the Warriors and Chiefs of their hometown high schools. But outside the stadiums, American Indians aren't cheering--they're yelling racism.

School boards and colleges are bombarded with emotional demands from both sides, while professional teams find themselves in court defending the right to trademark their Indian names and logos. In the face of opposition by a national anti-mascot movement, why are fans so determined to retain the fictional chiefs who plant flaming spears and dance on the fifty-yard line?

To answer this question, Dancing at Halftime takes the reader on a journey through the American imagination where our thinking about American Indians has been, and is still being, shaped. Dancing at Halftime is the story of Carol Spindel's determination to understand why her adopted town is so passionately attached to Chief Illiniwek, the American Indian mascot of the University of Illinois. She rummages through our national attic, holding dusty souvenirs from world's fairs and wild west shows, Edward Curtis photographs, Boy Scout handbooks, and faded football programs up to the light. Outside stadiums, while American Indian Movement protestors burn effigies, she listens to both activists and the fans who resent their attacks. Inside hearing rooms and high schools, she poses questions to linguists, lawyers, and university alumni.

A work of both persuasion and compassion, Dancing at Halftime reminds us that in America, where Pontiac is a car and Tecumseh a summer camp, Indians are often our symbolic servants, functioning as mascots and metaphors that express our longings to become "native" Americans, and to feel at home in our own land.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-9

A friend of mine says Americans lack a sense of place. An environmentalist and geographer, he is a person who has grown up, been educated, married, raised a family, and buried a son on the same patch of prairie. The rest of us? We are nomads, nostalgic for the place where we grew up and unattached to the place where we live. This lack of attachment to place makes us, he maintains, neglectful...

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Home Game

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pp. 10-12

It is a warm Saturday afternoon in October, the afternoon of a home game, and about forty thousand Fighting Illini fans file into Memorial Stadium. The stadium will hold nearly seventy thousand, but the team is losing badly this year. Blue pants are topped with bright orange blazers and orange sweaters. The round circle logo of Chief Illiniwek’s face is on the plastic drink cups they carry, on the...

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The Controversy

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pp. 13-27

At school board meetings, at universities, in professional sports, and on the editorial pages of widely read newspapers, objections are being raised to teams named the Warriors, Braves, Chiefs, Indians, and Redskins. Teams named after specific tribes such as the Apaches and Mohawks have also been criticized. Six teams—the Florida State Seminoles, the Fighting Illini at the University of Illinois...

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Myth and Mascot

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pp. 28-37

The French semiologist Roland Barthes spent his professional life analyzing how we hold on to certain images and turn them into myth. It was Barthes in the 1950s who first applied semiotics, the study of signs, to popular culture in his book Mythologies. Detergents, wrestling, french fries—no subject was too ordinary for his semiotic lens. Myth is, Barthes explains, a language, a form of...

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Races of Living Things

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pp. 38-57

Chief Illiniwek is an invention, a fictional character, but he is legitimized by his connection to real Indians, whom he is supposed to recall to our minds. The real Indians in this particular story are the Illinois. They entered the historical record when the French explorer Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit priest who accompanied him, Father Marquette, arrived at one of their villages in 1673. According to Marquette’s...

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Starved Rock

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pp. 58-68

It was a cool Sunday in early March when I set off for Starved Rock State Park with my husband, Tom, as travel companion. There was talk of snow that day, which wouldn’t have been unusual normally, but it had been a balmy winter and the crocuses were already blooming. As we drove north, the sky changed dramatically again and again. Very low clouds whitewashed the air and we could...

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That Roughneck Indian Game

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pp. 69-79

As they looked forward to the twentieth century, the deans and professors at the University of Illinois encouraged the students’ identification with Illini warriors, for they wanted their charges to be sound in mind and body. The notion that an ideal education combined academics and athletics became an important American value. In the 1890s college teams were competing at regional meets that included...

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Sons of Modern Illini

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pp. 80-95

When the University of Pennsylvania was coming to play Illinois in 1926, its marching band offered to bring a William Penn costume for a halftime skit if Illinois would come up with a character to meet Penn. There was no question how the student who would shake Penn’s hand and welcome him to Illinois should dress. Of course he had to be an Indian....

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Folded Leaves

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pp. 96-107

What was college like for a student in the 1920s? Arriving on the train at the University of Illinois, new students might have taken the streetcar straight to the YMCA or YWCA to get lists of accredited boardinghouses. Female students automatically became members of the Women’s League organized by the YWCA and were encouraged to attend the league’s Wednesday teas. For a fee, students...

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The Wild West

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pp. 108-119

For most Americans, to be Indian is to be Sioux. The final wars between the U.S. army and the Great Sioux Nation took place after photography had been invented, and images of the fighting Sioux were published in popular newspapers and dime novels. After their defeat, Sioux men toured with Wild West shows to reenact their battles with the U.S. cavalry. A combination circus, rodeo, and...

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Chills to the Spine, Tears to the Eyes

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pp. 120-140

The thirties were not great years for Illinois football. Attendance went down. Zuppke thought the rules needed an “appendectomy”—the removal of the extra point, for which he blamed his team’s losses. Zup loved the challenge of teaching a runner to play football or molding an ordinary player into a good one, but he refused to go out of his way to recruit high school stars. In the...

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The Speakers Have It All Wrong

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pp. 141-156

In 1988 the art department at the University of Illinois recruited three students from the School of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. After a couple of weeks on campus one of them, Marcus Amerman, wrote a letter to the student newspaper, the Daily Illini. The letter explained his objections to Chief Illiniwek in the context of the “near genocide of my people” and the continuing...

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In Whose Honor?

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pp. 157-168

Jay Rosenstein remembers perfectly his first football game at the University of Illinois. He had just come down from Chicago for college, and was in his words “a huge sports fan.” He can’t forget because it was a football fan’s worst nightmare, a 0-0 tie between Illinois and Northwestern, “who had a terrible team in those days.”...

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pp. 169-172

Montezuma was a member of the Yavapai tribe. At the age of six, he and his two sisters were kidnapped by Pima Indians. His mother was forbidden to leave the reservation to look for her children, and when she disobeyed, she was killed by an army scout. The Pimas sold the boy to a traveling Italian photographer for thirty dollars. The photographer renamed him Carlos Montezuma and...

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The Spoils of Victory

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pp. 173-175

They’re still with me, but I have to somehow translate, transform really, the midpoint of a soccer match into the spectacle of Big Ten football at Memorial Stadium. I have never seen the equivalent in France. Lacking an analogy, I launch into a description. There is a band. They wear uniforms and they march and play at the same time. As they do this, they form and reform into words and shapes on the field. Girls wave flags to create designs in the air. This is...

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Coloring Books

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pp. 176-177

My mother never believed in coloring books. She banned them from our house, although there were always piles of blank manila paper, the thick yellow kind, and crayons. Even without coloring books, when we drew, we called it coloring. It was something I always loved to do. When I went to school, a disconcerting thing happened. No one recognized the images I colored with the classroom...

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What Do I Know about Indians?

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pp. 178-184

Where, I ask myself, did the Indians in my imagination come from? My only exposure to real American Indians in childhood came at a place called Chucalissa, on the Mississippi River just outside Memphis. My mother and her friend Ruth were great ones for throwing me and Ruth’s son Little Jack into the back seat and driving to the country for an outing. If the destination was also educational, my...

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The Wistful Reservoir

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pp. 185-188

Accuracy and authenticity have often been invoked as criteria to evaluate images of American Indians. Critics invoked accuracy when they discussed the early American painter George Catlin’s portraits. Although they couldn’t visit the Indians themselves to make an independent evaluation, the critics decided the artwork must be accurate. After all, he drew himself in one portrait sketching an Indian...

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pp. 189-198

The passage of time, the changing of the seasons, a new status in a person’s life— birth, death, graduation from school, or return from war—any of these can be marked by appropriate dance and music in an American Indian community. Dance can be religious or social, and is often both at the same time. Dancing expresses and consolidates a sense of belonging....

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Scandalous and Disparaging

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pp. 199-210

If we were to travel back in time and walk through the World’s Fair held in St. Louis in 1904 to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, we could visit the large exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution. Here, we would see and learn about “primitive peoples.” Over two thousand Eskimos, American Indians, Pygmies, and others are camped out in villages. Curious...

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The Tribe

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pp. 211-223

It is opening day 1999 at Jacobs Field, an impressive, five-year-old stadium in downtown Cleveland and the home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. According to tradition, it always snows on opening day, but there are no snowflakes in sight. It is an ordinary chilly Monday morning in mid-April and even though the game won’t start for hours, the restaurants and bars around the...

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A Young Child Speaking

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pp. 224-229

Debbie Reese grew up in northern New Mexico in Nambé Pueblo, a community of six hundred people, divided into an upper and lower village by families, a place where everyone knows everyone else and most people are related. Her grandmother’s house adjoined theirs, and as a child she roamed the hills with her grandmother, collecting herbs and scavenging for bits and pieces like discarded wire spools, which they fashioned into fences and gates. In the kiva...

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A Racially Hostile Environment?

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pp. 230-246

When I catch up with Principal Chief Joyce Dugan of the Eastern Band Cherokee, she is at the front of a crowded elementary school gymnasium in Cherokee, North Carolina. The graduating sixth-graders, in their best clothes, are seated in front of her on chairs arranged in neat long rows. Most, but not all, have shiny black hair. Their parents and grandparents fill the bleachers, trying to keep younger brothers and sisters settled and cameras held ready at the...

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pp. 247-251

The leaves are already turning red and orange-yellow, and the wind blows hard, but it is a soft, warm wind, the last breath of summer. Indian summer. Why we call it that I don’t know. At Memorial Stadium, it is homecoming. There have already been parties, dinners honoring alumni, a parade with blue and orange floats. But this warm windy Saturday morning is the football game. Illinois vs....

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Video Letters

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pp. 252-272

I am sitting in a studio at our public television station as people tape “video letters” in response to Jay Rosenstein’s documentary In Whose Honor? which was shown the night before on public television. The video letters, created by viewers in response to the films shown, are a regular feature of the program POV. Most of those who come in to speak before the camera are motivated not by the...

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Addendum from Grand Forks, North Dakota

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pp. 273-279

He seems like a character who stepped out of an academic spoof—a Las Vegas casino owner who wanders into academia with an open palm of million dollar bills that he wants to give away. Let’s name our character Ralph and make him not only a hard-nosed businessman but a former hockey goalie who wants to give his alma mater the best hockey arena in the world, bar none. Let’s add that...

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pp. 280-288

Native America received a powerful message of support in April 2001 when the United States Commission on Civil Rights, at the urging of the only Native American commissioner, Elsie Meeks, issued a statement on the subject. This advisory body to the U.S. government has no enforcement authority, but its serious studies of discriminatory practices often lead to legislation. The statement is...

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pp. 289-290

I am grateful to every one of the many people who talked to me about their own experiences with Indian mascots, as well as each student who posed questions. Many others passed on references, articles, names, or stories. Although I can’t thank every single person with whom I’ve conversed on this subject, those conversations have been an important part of writing this book. I’d especially like...

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Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 291-293

Teachers at many levels tell me that the subject of mascots works well as a way to introduce students to many issues. Teachers will find that Jay Rosenstein’s film In Whose Honor complements this book well and is accessible for diverse ages and groups. A Native point of view about mascots can be easily found in many columns published in Indian Country Today, the nation’s largest native...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 294-298

About the Author

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pp. 299

E-ISBN-13: 9780814771112
E-ISBN-10: 0814771114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814781265
Print-ISBN-10: 0814781268

Page Count: 308
Publication Year: 2000

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sports team mascots -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Indians of North America -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- Mascots.
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