Reflections on the Dismantling of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Since the early 2000s the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) developed one of the most vibrant Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) departments in the country, including several faculty lines, an artist and elder resident program, and student fellowships. Its faculty included those reknown for their scholarship (Jodi A. Byrd, Chickasaw), creative work (Joy Harjo, Muscogee), and international leadership in the professional development of the field of NAIS (Robert Warrior, Osage). One of their most recent programmatic accomplishments was the receit of an award to mentor (post)doctoral students working comparatively (transnationally) in NAIS across the hemisphere and Pacific. They were pushing disciplinary and intellectual boundaries in uniquely geopolitical ways, showing up the global relationality of Native/Indigenous experiences of U.S., Canadian, and European imperialism and colonialism while remaining attuned to the needs for Native/Indigenous faculty development and student mentorship.
This was no small matter for Native American and Indigenous communities in the United States. It seems just about every Native person has seen — some multiple times — the film In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports (1997), which documents the culture of racism towards Native faculty, staff, and students at UIUC. This culture of racism has been instanced and perpetuated by the Chief Illiniwek mascot, officially retired in February 2007 to comply with NCAA regulations but continually performed and marketed at UIUC sports events and local entertainment and food venues.
Many know that Native families in the region have been hesitant to send their children to UIUC and that tribes have rejected or been hesitant to develop productive relations with the university (even while supporting Native faculty, staff, and students and the department) because of the racist ideologies and practices that the mascot represents. Many also know that Native/Indigenous faculty, staff, and students have experienced ongoing acts of racist violence and harrassment, including the vandalism of an outdoor exhibit, “Beyond the Chief” by Edgar Heap of Birds in 2009, racist events sponsored by sororities and fraternities and campus organizations, and racialized threats against Native/Indigenous students, staff, and faculty on social media.
UIUC’s building of the AIS department suggested an effort to cultivate of a different kind of culture. In the spirit of that effort, during the 2014-15 academic year, AIS proposed to change its department name to Indigenous Studies and hired Palestinian scholar Steven Salaita. These actions were consistent with their work to extend the boundaries of the field. But anti-Palestinian groups and individuals as well as pro-Israeli funders mobilized a fierce reactionary attack that resulted in Salaita’s firing and his subsequent lawsuit and settlement over the violation of his civil rights in that firing (see here for details on the attacks).
In the context of campus and international attacks on AIS faculty over Salaita’s hiring, firing, and lawsuit/settlement, and the continued on-campus racism against Native/Indigenous faculty, staff, and students represented by the Chief’s relentless resusitation in post-retirement, AIS faculty have transfered their lines to other departments or left the campus altogether. At the end of the 2015-16 academic year, there will be no core faculty in the department.
Two Updates (6/1):
- The faculty have been informed that the UIUC administration will not commit itself to hire another NAIS scholar for 2 years, effectively absorbing the approximately $800,000 annually for the six faculty lines in AIS into the campus coffer. The real achievement, then, was gutting the faculty lines in order to reaquire the money for itself. In two years, the administration will have covered the Salaita settlement and pocketed $600,000.
- There are — will still be — Native/Indigenous faculty and fellows on campus but none will be in the department of American Indian Studies: the two current faculty in AIS are assistant professor Jenny L. Davis (Chickasaw), who will be transfering to Anthropology in August, and professor/director Robert Warrior (Osage), who will be moving to the University of Kansas in August. Davis’ first year on campus was the year of Salaita’s hiring/firing. The three postdoctural fellows include Silvia Soto, Brianna Theobald, and Korinta Maldonado. The faculty who have remained on campus but have transfered their lines include Jody A. Byrd (Chickasaw), who is now in English and Gender and Women’s Studies, and Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert (Hopi), who is now in History. Faculty who have left the campus include Vincent M. Diaz (Pohnpeian/Filipino) and Christine Taitano DeLisle (Chamorro), who are at the University of Minnesota. LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) had already moved to the University of Georgia. Affiliated faculty include Joy Harjo (Muscogee) in English; Brenda Farnell (Anthropology); Fred Hoxie (History); Robert Dale Parker (History).
In God Is Red, Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., suggests that history ought to be understood not as a temporal progression or evolution of events but in its geocultural contexts. In other words, history is not about time but about place.
When the history of AIS at UIUC is told, it should be told not as an inevitable, natural, or social evolution of events, but as defined by the place now known as Urbana-Champaign.
The cities of Urbana and Champaign were built within the historical territories of the Illinois Confederacy, including the tribes of the Albiui, Amonokoa, Cahokia, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Kaskaskia, Moingwena, Michigamea, Espeminkia, Maroa, Matchinkoa, Michibousa, Negawichi, Peoria, Tamaroa, and Tapouara.
Through 1700, the confederacy was decimated by disease and warfare.
By 1800, only five tribes remained in the area—the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa. (Urbana was founded in 1822.) Under the terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the tribes were forced to cede their territories and remove to Indian Territory, which at the time included territories that would later become the states of Kansas and Oklahoma. (Champaign was founded in 1855.) As with so many other cities in the region, Urbana and Champaign were established and developed largely after the Illinois Central Railroad laid its tracks two miles west of downtown Urbana.
According to the UIUC website:
“The University was one of 37 public land-grant institutions established after the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. Illinois was one of seven commonwealths that had not formed a state university. Eligible for a grant of 480,000 acres of public scrip land valued at $600,000, in 1867 the state established a university for the purpose of fostering access to higher education for the working people. … Its roots began as one building located in the muddy fields between the Illinois Central train station in Champaign and the courthouse in Urbana.”
As other public land grant institutions, the UIUC campus was only possible because of the territorial dispossession of Native nations that had historical and legal claim to the lands. The forced removal and liquidation of the financial assets of those nations under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act expedited the dispossession and economically, geographically legitimated non-Native claims to the land and their capital investments.
There is something ironic in the fact that the lands, under U.S. control, were reformulated as lands for the public, common interest — higher education and railroad transportation. Public and the common good, of course, meaning everything and anything not Indigenous.
The New Indian Removal
Where are Native/Indigenous people in Illinois?
Between the 2000 and 2010 census, the American Indian and Alaska Native population of Illinois grew by 41.8 percent to represent .3% of the total state population.
According to the 2010 census, American Indian and Alaska Native population people are over-represented in the state’s prison population; they are about 3.5 times more likely to be in prison than Whites (see graph below).
According to the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Prison Reform:
“Historically, Illinois has had a costly overreliance on prison which has grown exponentially in the last four decades, from 6,000 inmates in 1974 to almost 49,000 today. The growth has continued despite space constraints – today’s prison system was designed to hold only 32,000 – and falling crime rates since the early 1990s. … Almost 60 percent of the prison population were Black compared to 15 percent of the general population. And while nearly 65 percent of the general population is White, Whites made up less than 30 percent of the prison population.”
According to the Illinois Poverty Rate:
“Poverty rates are 2 to 3 times higher for Illinoisans of color, and people of color fare far worse on nearly every measure of well-being. In the latest of its annual reports on poverty, “Racism’s Toll,” Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center lays bare the moral, human, and economic cost of the deep inequities in the state. Virtually all research on poverty shows that people of color are at a much greater risk of experiencing poverty across all age groups and across generations than whites. And mountains of other statistics and studies show the stark differences in outcomes, status, and experiences between whites and people of color: Black children in Illinois are nearly 4 times more likely to live below the poverty line than white children; the Illinois school districts with the most students of color receive 16% less in funding per student than districts serving the fewest students of color; unemployment rates are far higher for black Illinois workers than whites at every educational level; Illinoisans of color are 2 to 3 times more likely to not have health insurance; Black Illinoisans on average live 6 years less than whites; Poor black (16%) and Latino (22%) Illinoisans are more likely to live within a mile of a hazardous chemical facility than poor whites (13%); nationally, the median net worth for a white household is $110,500 versus $6,314 for a black household.”
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty:
How do we understand these disparities?
According to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
Apparently, in the United States, there is plenty of room for Native, Indigenous, and other racialized groups in U.S. prisons, unemployment, and homelessness but there isn’t any room for their sovereign rights on their traditional territories or in their unique cultures.
Chief Illiniwek literally, figuratively, and economically replaced the citizens of the Illinois Confederacy with a charactiture of a non-existent Indian chief. He did so under the guise of celebrating the state’s history, multiculturalism, and campus achievement but advanced patriarchal ideologies via the hyper-masculinity of white athleticism. At the same time, the university geoeconomically replaced the territories of the Illinois Confederacy with an institution of “public education” the Chief and his culture of racism has made intolerable for NAIS and scholarship, let alone for Native faculty, staff, and students.
UIUC created the opportunity for itself to change these things, to change its relationship to the lands and their peoples. It chose not to continue in the most hostile ways imaginable.
And what is particularly disturbing is that UIUC is not alone. As critical ethnic and indigenous studies programs around the country are struggling to survive systemic and systematic attacks, often under the guise of austerity, one can only wonder what other Chief Illiniweks will be (re)created to rationalize their erasure.