September 5, 2014

The Swamp

Poster of Events Cancelled at UIUC, September 5, 2014

Poster of Events Cancelled at UIUC, September 5, 2014

I write on a very muggy day in central Illinois. It’s a day made for thinking about bad air, toxic humors, fuzzy minds, and muddled actions. The concerns around the unhiring of Steven Salaita have preoccupied me for a month. I will not go over ground so ably covered elsewhere, but I need to sort out the tangle of issues that have accompanied the polarizing non-discussions occurring on this campus. If I could separate some of the tangle into various, named threads, maybe I could begin to find ways to talk to others. Here goes.

The fluctuating state of public, higher education:
How public is it? Who pays for it? What do different stakeholders mean by education?

The governance of the UI
How is a large research university governed? In reality? Aspirationally? Is there shared governance with faculty? What percentage of the faculty care about sharing governance? Does the governor have a say in the academic programs? Do and should the University trustees on the governor-appointed board have a say in the academic programs? There are statutes that govern these areas—are they being ignored, distorted, or followed?

The race for the next governor
Does the incumbent Quinn’s contested race have anything to do with the current crisis at the University of Illinois? Is Quinn trying to prove anything? And to whom?

The search for a new president of the University of Illinois
Who will the new president be, supposedly due to be announced in a month? Does Phyllis Wise want to be president? After the forced resignations of Joe White and Mike Hogan, do we know what this job is supposed to be?

The new engineering-based College of Medicine on the Champaign campus
So, Carle Foundation and the UIUC campus administrators are pushing hard for this. There’s money to be made by some folks, though not the schools, parks, and citizens of Urbana, who continue to get heavily taxed while Carle runs its “not-for-profit” healthcare empire. What does this have to do with the current administration’s behavior? Is the College of Medicine agenda—and its corporate funding—trumping other agendas?

Money talks and prompts action
Do the perceptions of major donors drive the upper-level administrative decisions?

Faculty leadership
There’s the apparently pro-chancellor Faculty Senate, the divided committees, the pro-union, mostly anti-chancellor Campus Faculty Association, the north/engineering campus, the liberal arts college, the well-funded ag college, and the departments that have voted “no confidence” in the chancellor and the Board of Trustees. The artists and humanists feel and mostly are trivialized and underfunded. How do we get out of this impasse? Would anyone but the artists and humanists notice if the arts and humanities disappeared?

Academic freedom
“Academic freedom” is a phrase that gets batted around on all sides. The American Association of University Professors has defined it, and the UI supposedly endorses this. Of course, abstractions are pretty easy to support; it is when we have to embody and speak the details that things get rough.

Anti-racist, inclusive campus
What would our campus be like if it truly centered the goals and ideas of the American Indian Studies program and other “ethnic” and gender studies programs? What does inclusion mean here? What reparations do we need to implement to address centuries of racism and violence on this land?

Social media
If something angry, polemical, or horrified is expressed in 140 characters, is that part of a scholarly record? Where are the lines now between a private citizen and a public intellectual? Who gets to decide these distinctions, can such decisions even be enforced, and enforced fairly?

I haven’t even discussed Steven Salaita; it’s hard to fathom where to start. I have left out so many other aspects too, but naming and questioning contributes to the necessarily ongoing process of facing and challenging the swamp that is Illinois.

October 22, 2011

“All that We Let In”

Found on Facebook, attribution unknown

Metaphorically speaking, I agree with the lyrics of The Indigo Girls’ song when they sing “we’re better off for all that we let in.” The song reminds me to be open to challenges and growth, but of course sometimes “all” the suffering of the world is too much and needs to be balanced by celebration and laughter. It is a never-ending calibration of the self.

I have been thinking about these lyrics in terms of whiteness and racism, prompted by a small reading and discussion group that I attended this past week. I am always struck by how complicated racism is, because systems and people are so complex, obviously.  But what is not as obvious is how the complexity can offer a dodge for dealing with real oppressions. How tempting it is to throw up my hands and say, “it is so complicated!” Conversations among us shift quickly from race to issues of class, academic hierarchies, gender, ableism, and sexual orientation. What is avoidance, what is recognition of multidimensional exclusions? I come back to the idea of an imperfect balance: sometimes I fall, committing a microaggression or even a major aggression in some thoughtless way; other times I sway, righting myself at the last minute and reflecting on a “near miss;” perhaps I occasionally get it. I assiduously avoid confrontation, failing to call out others’ behaviors that are offensive or problematic. I can rationalize my behavior as that of a “nice girl” who doesn’t want to publicly shame others, but in the end, I am ducking the job I need to do.

I believe that I am racist because I live in a racist society, full of injustices to so many people, and that we are all hobbled and seriously out of whack by the way the systems in which we live scar all of us, killing so many, too soon. Perhaps by blaming “the system” I am also ducking the challenge to heal myself. So, let me (re)commit to trying to love my imperfect self, which includes healing the fear of anger and the stuckness of habit. Also in the song by the Indigo Girls quoted above is the line: “The greatest gift of life is to know love.” It’s a powerful, but difficult, gift.

December 13, 2009


Last Thursday (December 11), I attended a panel organized by a working group at the University of Illinois called Ubuntu. Computer scientists kind of colonized the word by using it to describe a Debian-based Linux distribution. But in any case, Ubuntu is a Xhosa and Zulu word describing a philosophy of community and sharing. And the UI Ubuntu has come together in the aftermath of the shooting death of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington of Champaign. Kiwane died after being shot by a police officer in October 2009 at close range, as he was trying to enter a house where he had been staying. His friend who was with him, Jeshaun Manning-Carter, has been charged with aggravated resisting arrest (a felony) for trying to avoid the police. Jeshaun just turned 16, and will be on trial in early 2010. There has been a lot of news coverage (in several publications and online), so I won’t repeat what is covered elsewhere.

Ubuntu participants want to reclaim the Black Studies tradition of scholar-activism, and I applaud them! Historian Clarence Lang talked about the continuum between academic excellence and social responsibility; campus and community; study and struggle. Historian Sundiata Cha-Jua spoke about reviving a Black United Front that would bring about an annual report issued on the police use of force; a petition to Congress to make the police use of excessive force a federal crime; and a citizen’s police review board in Champaign, among other ideas. Imani Bazzell, who wears many hats, mentioned her program, “At Promise…of Success,” which sees youth as promising success rather than “at risk” of failure. She advocated for workshops for public school teachers to increase their knowledge of the black intellectual tradition. Sociologist Ruby Mendenhall spoke about the oral histories that she has been gathering with her students. County Board member Carol Ammons spoke movingly about her anguish and her frustration with teen-police relationships. I cannot even begin to do justice to the powerful words she voiced. Other speakers included Brendeesha Tynes, Ken Salo, Kerry Pimblott, Barbara Kessel, William Kyles and Pastor Nash. Barbara Kessel spoke about her research into “domestic rendition,” the removal of prisoners from Cook County Jail to Kankakee in order to use tasers on these men. Taser use in Cook County is illegal.

The room was packed. There is such a need for coordinated effort and continued conversation. Thanks to Ubuntu for taking up the challenge. I hope we can build a strong wall, with varied bricks and stones, that will collectively support each other and resist disunity in the face of inevitable differences.

September 7, 2009

Every Body! Again

Artist Bonnie Fortune, organizer and curator of the exhibit “Every Body!,” asked some of us to reflect on these questions, or similar ones:

  • How feminist health movements challenge/change the images of  women and/or men and health?
  • Where do you think the visual representation of  bodies in feminist health movements needs to go, and/ or the new concerns they must grapple with?
  • What is the future feminist health movements in general?

Here’s what I wrote:

Dorothy Roberts pondered in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, “how is it possible that Black women’s reproduction has been subjected to so much degradation and intrusion?” Roberts published her book in 1997, but after more than a decade, I still agree with her that we in the feminist health justice movement must focus “on the connection between reproductive rights and racial equality.” This is not an abstract connection, given that entrenched social injustices prevent many women the choices that the government supposedly protects. These deep injustices mean that we white, well-off women also have to examine our own collective past–organizers in the birth control movement who collaborated with eugenicists; or opposition to sterilization reform by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League because the reforms seemed to make access to sterilization difficult for middle-class women. We must expand what we mean by “reproductive rights” beyond “right to abortion” and tackle other hard realities: the rights to a healthy pregnancy and parent-child relationships along with safe, fail-proof, and non-coercive birth control. My own challenges include coming to terms with artificial reproductive techniques: While not discounting the emotional costs of infertility, I’m not sure that anyone should use them. But that only the wealthy can do so, points to a profitable and questionable system of access that again excludes the poor and not white.

Dorothy Roberts' book

Dorothy Roberts

June 30, 2009

Confrontations Do Not Conversations Make

Walking on the sidewalk with “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs under my arm, I am on my way to deliver them in east Urbana.

Man on porch whistles, then yells at me: “Let me see those signs!”

Retracing my steps, I stand in his driveway and say that the signs are in support of Heap of Birds’ work on campus.

Man, now standing, cigarette in hand: “I was just curious to see the signs. You ever been to Allerton?”

Me: “Yes.”

Man: “I went to 4-H camp there and the cabins were named after Indian tribes.”

Me: “Well, we live on their land now.”

Man, loudly: “No we don’t!”

Me: “How so?”

Man, swearing even more loudly and then: “It’s ours now. Get over it! Get out of here!”

Me: “OK!” Retreating, the man continues to yell, telling me to get over it, calling me a moron, and other rude nouns with adjectives that I am sure you can imagine.

I kept thinking of Charlene Teters, standing all alone in front of Assembly Hall almost 20 years ago, protesting the racist mascot, chief Illiniwek, and the abuse she endured. Some of the story is told by Jay Rosenstein’s documentary “In Whose Honor?” It is very difficult, maybe impossible in this evening’s case, to respectfully engage with someone who vehemently disagrees with me. I felt kind of bad walking away, but I also felt a little scared. Then I ran into a couple walking with their children and they greeted me with the comment that they already had a sign in their yard, and were glad to have one. So, on balance, one and one!

June 25, 2009

Yard Signs in Solidarity

In front of Native American House, U of Illinois, Urbana

In front of Native American House, U of Illinois, Urbana

Here’s the press release that a group of us wrote to accompany distribution of the yard signs created in solidarity with Edgar Heap of Birds’ art installation, “Beyond the Chief.”

Respect Native Hosts, a grassroots campaign in support of Native American artist’s public art installation

Student groups, local activists, and concerned citizens join today, Thursday, June 25, 2009, with the Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street) and the American Indian Studies program (1204 W. Nevada St.) on the University of Illinois campus to confront racism with a creative and heartfelt response. The response takes the form of declarative yard signs that read: “Respect Native Hosts: Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Piankesaw,” explicitly showing support for “Beyond the Chief,” a public art exhibit of twelve signs by the internationally exhibited Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds.

“Beyond the Chief” was installed along West Nevada Street in Urbana in February 2009 and asks viewers to reflect on political and social histories of central Illinois, especially those related to indigenous peoples. Since their installation, there have been six separate incidents of vandalism followed by the theft of two of the signs, the latter resulting in the June 18 arrest of a recent University of Illinois graduate. Despite these egregious instances of violence directed toward the artwork, there has been little official response from University administrators.

With “Beyond the Chief,” Heap of Birds adapts his text-based artwork, at least in part, to respond directly to the local campus community and the ongoing conflict surrounding the use of the sports mascot “chief Illiniwek” that promoted University of Illinois intercollegiate athletics for 81 years. Though the “chief” was retired as an official mascot in 2007, music and graphics still appear at Illinois sporting events in an unofficial capacity. On each of the twelve “Beyond the Chief” signs, “Fighting Illini” is printed backwards above the words “Today Your Host Is…” followed by the name of an indigenous group such as the Peoria, Kaskaskia, or the Wea, to inspire reflection on those American Indian communities that formerly lived in this region and the complex histories of this landscape.

“One thing I have thought about the ‘Beyond the Chief’exhibit is that it marks in specific ways previously unmarked and unnamed removals, ” said Robert Warrior, Professor and Director of the Native American House and American Indian Studies, and curator of “Beyond the Chief.” “Perhaps the local signs can do the same sort of naming, remembering and respecting the Peoria, Piankesaw, Wea, and Kaskaskia specifically.” Responding to the continued defacement of the artwork, a group of Champaign-Urbana citizens came together to design a reproducible sign to extend the original message of the Heap of Birds artwork to the community at large.

The design for the “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs was created with the input of Warrior and the artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, who expressed appreciation for all efforts to counter negativity towards the exhibit. It is hoped that the yard signs will open up private spaces for public discussion, and quickly show that homes all over Champaign-Urbana are working to build a community based on inclusivity and justice. The “Respect Native Hosts” solidarity yard signs will be available for free at the Native American House until they are gone. Drop by the yard of Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street)  between 10AM and 11AM and pick up yours today!

If you cannot make it and would like to obtain a sign to promote an anti-racist message in your own yard please contact Sharon Irish, via email.  If you would like to donate to the “Respect Native Hosts” project contact Sharon Irish as well. If we receive enough funds, we will print another run of the signs.


It was incredibly hot and humid, so we sweated together as we chatted in the shade. We spoke to two television cameras and a couple of reporters.

Two posts that used to hold the Ho-Chunk sign that was stolen

Two posts that used to hold the Ho-Chunk sign that was stolen

May 25, 2009

Memorial Day and Beyond the Chief

I have spent this rainy Memorial Day thinking more about responses to the vandalism of “Beyond the Chief,” by artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Because this art installation of twelve red and white signs is to honor and remember those tribes and peoples who have come before us, I wondered about parallels between the damage to these memorial signs and destruction of other markers of ancestral spots, like graves. In 1993, the Jewish cemetery in Billings, Montana, was desecrated. A film called “Not in Our Town” was made about the collective response to hateful acts in Billings, and then two more DVDs from The Working Group followed, on other towns that responded to hate crimes.

A useful, brief discussion–“Vandalism to Art at the University of Illinois Native American House”–among WILL-AM staff Celeste Quinn, Director of American Indian Studies Robert Warrior, and Mr. Heap of Birds is archived on the radio’s website. While this interview came up when I search the UIUC website, there has been no official post regarding the vandalism (that I know of.)

There’s a now-six-year-old article on Heap of Birds’ work at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that Wilhelm Murg wrote in Indian Country Today. At that museum, which is in the former U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green, Heap of Birds displayed his “Diary of Trees” which included “large text drawings and full-scale maquettes (large Y-shaped forms used in his studio) for ‘Wheel,’ his 50-foot outdoor sculpture designed for the Denver Art Museum.” I have always thought that the Smithsonian’s acquisition of the old custom house for Native American art exhibits was at least a beginning step toward reclaiming Manhattan. The Daniel Chester French sculpture from 1907, one of the four “Continents” that still mark the entry to the building in lower Manhattan, is of its time in its depiction of white domination and Indian subordination. I have written and spoken about it elsewhere, but this image pretty much says it all:

D.C. French, "America" 1907

May 21, 2009

And What Else Beyond?

This morning I tied plastic-covered strips of paper to each of the signs in “Beyond the Chief,” an installation by Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois, in Urbana. The strips read:
On May 17, 2009, the artist Edgar Heap of Birds was quoted in The News-Gazette:
“[This is] really a memorial to the tribes that are gone….When natives make memorials to themselves or their losses that’s more important than a college mascot or other issue. Everything doesn’t have to be about the dominant white culture.”

Indeed, everything is not about the dominant white culture, but it is always a challenge to confront that dominance without simultaneously centering it. The most recent vandalism to “Beyond the Chief” (the sixth by my count, on May 20, apparently during the day) of course saddened and angered me, but I was also torn about an effective response. Would expressing outrage satisfy the vandal(s)? Could I respond creatively and respectfully to such acts of intolerance? (The vandalisms are acts of intolerance.) Are we inching forward, away from the toxic past of that mascot, toward a culture of respect? Or are we backsliding? Will it always be a push-and-pull between people’s hateful actions and words, and calls for conversation and dialogue? How to get past the irony that Mr. Heap of Birds’ art is property, with an assessed value, that comments on land that is stolen property, which wasn’t initially viewed as property, but rather as a gift to be held in sacred trust? Where do we begin to heal the many breaches of trust?

For a start, we must apologize to the artist and to the students, staff, faculty, and alumni who have worked so long and hard to make a (theoretically) safe space for indigeneities at UIUC because we have not been able to provide a safe space. Who is “we”? Ideally, “we” is the institution and its official subgroups, but I’ll say this now:
I am sorry. Out of that regret and sorrow, I will act with love, to the best of my ability.
Not a cursory sorry, not an unhelpful guilty sorry, but an apology that acknowledges from my heart that I share in and have benefited from a legacy of genocide, theft, greed, and hate in which John Iryshe, bastard son of an English mother, and all of his descendants from 1629 on, including me, participated, directly or indirectly.

I hold that sorrow together with joy, for my life, and for the variety of lives around me. I reach out from that joy as best I can. While I have long admired the work of Edgar Heap of Birds, I felt joy walking down Nevada Street to work everyday, before the vandals struck, and struck again, and again. For me, the public artwork of Heap of Birds goes to the center of vital issues, ideas that prompt questions and honor others. It is about respect.
And what else?

We must buy this work of art, to continue the implicit conversations among us, to continue to honor those who came before, whom we long dishonored.
And what else?

Retire the name “Fighting Illini.” Find a new mascot and new music for sporting events.
And what else?
Make this mission statement on the official “Illini” website real:
“To have the highest quality athletic program in all sports that allows the University of Illinois teams to compete for championships in the Big Ten Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association…with integrity and a caring community.”
See another post other for possible actions.

May 13, 2009

Reimagining Ourselves

The signs in Edgar Heap of Birds’ installation were vandalized for a fourth time on May 10, 2009. Someone wrote on one sign and two other signs were bent further.

I was reading Patricia J. Williams the other day: Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1997). She’s a lawyer and theorist who attended the recent Feminist Futures conference here at the University of Illinois. Here are the parts of her essay, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that rang bells for me:

[T]he dilemma of the emperor’s new clothes, we might call it—is a tension faced by any society driven by bitter histories of imposed hierarchy.
…The ability to remain true to one self, it seems to me, must begin with the ethical project of considering how we can align a sense of ourselves with a sense of the world. This is the essence of integrity, is it not, never having to split into a well-maintained “front” and a closely guarded “inside.”
Creating community, in other words, involves this most difficult work of negotiating real divisions, of considering boundaries before we go crashing through, and of pondering our differences before we can ever agree on the terms of our sameness.
Perhaps one reason that conversations about race are so often doomed to frustration is that the notion of whiteness as “race” is almost never implicated. One of the more difficult legacies of slavery and of colonialism is the degree to which racism’s tenacious hold is manifested not merely in the divided demographics of neighborhood or education or class but also in the process of what media expert John Fiske called the “exnomination” of whiteness as racial identity. Whiteness is unnamed, suppressed, beyond the realm of race. …[T]he majoritarian privilege of never noticing themselves was the beginning of an imbalance from which so much, so much else flowed.
…[T]he creation of a sense of community is a lifelong negotiation of endless subtlety.
…[T]hose marked as Having Race are ground down by the pendular stresses of having to explain what it feels like to be You—why are you black, why are you black, why are you black, over and over again; or alternatively, placed in a kind of conversational quarantine of muteness in which any mention of racial circumstance reduces all sides to tears, fears, fisticuffs, and other paroxysms of unseemly anguish.
…I believe that racism’s hardy persistence and immense adaptability are sustained by a habit of human imagination, deflective rhetoric, and hidden license.

We must RE-imagine ourselves.

May 6, 2009

Beyond the Chief by Edgar Heap of Birds

"Beyond the Chief" by Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009

We are privileged to have an installation by Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois. I wrote about being a docent with the work in the previous post. But I wanted to reflect a little more on this powerful work. The backwards writing (FIGHTING ILLINI), which refers to the name of the University of Illinois sports teams, struck me first as mirror writing, which then led me to think about reflection. The way in which Heap of Birds prompts reflection by the use of official-looking signage along an ordinary campus street strikes me as a supremely effective way to repetitively insert the question of “who is hosting whom” in the landscape. It not only encourages reflection, but a reflexive query, “how do I fit in this picture?” because the pedestrian IS in the scene as one walks by.

All of the peoples named in the signs at one time lived in and with this land. Many were forcibly removed, or killed, but of course their descendants continue to live today, mostly not in Illinois. This land grant university is built upon land that does not belong to it…as various broken treaties and outright theft attest. So, Heap of Birds prompts us to reverse the post-colonial claims by reversing the writing. Further, he reclaims the land, in a sense, by installing signs that remind us of those who have come before, and the land that nurtures us. We re-read the landscape.

The signs are declarations: straightforward statements that subtly prompt questions. The metallic, highway- sign surfaces seem official yet make the observer wonder about other directions and instructions that should be questioned. They are ironic and funny too. I like the juxtaposition of the signs with the regular no parking sign and the parking meters. Heap of Birds’ signs are street furniture that call for attitudinal shifts and policy changes. I fully support the purchase of this work so that we can have permanent reminders of the history and present/ce of indigenous people on campus in the form of this public art work.