Twenty years ago, on July 15, 1997, at precisely 8PM Central time, I took my dog out for a walk.
I don’t remember that exact detail because of a legal case, a witness statement, or a trial. I remember it because that was the moment when my four-long-years-in-the-making documentary, In Whose Honor?, about the controversial use of American Indian mascots in sports, hit the airwaves for the first time. It was the first television broadcast ever in my hometown of Champaign, Illinois. One hour later, the film would be shown to the rest of the nation on PBS.
I was too restless to sit at home and watch the broadcast, so the dog and I decided we might as well circle the neighborhood.
Although the documentary had received a huge amount of advance publicity, I wasn’t at all prepared for what I would encounter on our walk. As I peeked into the windows of the houses as we passed, every house with a TV on had it tuned in to the same thing: My documentary. Every. Single. One. It was a very strange feeling.
When I returned home, my wife had just finished packing. As the documentary aired on our local PBS station, my wife, my dog, and I jumped in the car and drove three blocks to a hotel, where we would be spending the night.
A vacation? Hardly. We left the house just in case someone tried to bomb it or burn it down. If that sounds extreme to you, consider that every person I had told in advance of our plan had the same reaction: “That’s probably a good idea.”
When the program’s national broadcast hit the air at 9PM on the PBS series POV, the series’ Executive Producer Lisa Heller, along with a Native American publicist she had hired, plus all sorts of other POV big-wigs and New York City V.I.P.s, gathered in a beautiful Manhattan location to celebrate the broadcast of my film. Meanwhile, my wife, dog, and I hid in a central Illinois hotel.
That was twenty years ago.
Thankfully, nothing happened to my house. But such was the environment in Champaign, Illinois, at the time. The film was very critical of the University of Illinois’ American Indian sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Speaking against “the Chief” in 1997 elicited a reaction not unlike that when John Lennon famously stated the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
The University of Illinois did, however, eventually get a measure of revenge against me. Three years later, I was set to be hired as a faculty member. But in what is always just a pro-forma Board of Trustees approval exercise, three members of the University’s Board of Trustees actually voted to block my hiring. Two of the three had been interviewed in the film; the third had barged into the room where I was filming an interview, insisting that I interview her as well.
Ultimately, my hiring was approved, by a 6 – 3 vote, giving me the distinction of being the only faculty member in the history of the University of Illinois to be hired without unanimous Board of Trustees approval. That goes to show the kind of out-of-proportion emotional devotion there was to this mascot. I consider it a badge of honor.
That’s about it for the negative things that happened over the twenty years since the film was released, save for a couple of stray letters. As for the positives, there are so many I hardly know where to begin.
The television broadcast of In Whose Honor? was, when it comes to Native American rights activism, the shot heard ‘round the world. The film immediately became a unifying force for the many disparate groups and individuals who had been championing the movement to rid the country of racially stereotyped American Indian sports mascots and reclaim Native American identity for Native American people. It not only solidified and energized the efforts of these various groups, it also shot the issue into a kind of public awareness overdrive. Kenneth Stern, then of the American Jewish Committee and one of the very first supporters of the efforts of Native American activist Charlene Teters, who is the main subject of the film, expressed it best when he wrote, “The film has sped up the educational curve on this issue by at least a decade.”
I felt this energy on the very first day after the film’s national broadcast. That morning, I went to work as usual. But at noon I received a strange phone message from my wife. “You better get home right now. The phone keeps ringing, and I think there’s something wrong with the answering machine.”
I ran home to see what was happening. There was nothing wrong with the answering machine. At that time, answering machines recorded messages on tape, and the 30-minute tape on our machine had completely filled up that morning, and calls were continuing to come in. It took me a week just to sort them all out.
At dozens of schools around the country, In Whose Honor? played a key role in helping to rid those schools of their Native American mascots and nicknames. And it wasn’t just at individual schools—local and even statewide school boards were being persuaded to create policies eliminating all their Native nicknames and mascots. The cities of Dallas and Los Angeles are two of the early school boards that I recall taking such action. In some cases, these efforts even eventually worked their way up to state legislatures, where lawmakers in states like Wisconsin and California took up the issue.
The one place where I am well aware of the film’s role was with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, the governing body for all of college athletics. In 1998, about a year after the release of the film, I received a phone call from someone at the NCAA. They wanted ten copies of In Whose Honor? to distribute to the members of their Minority Affairs Committee. Some time later, the NCAA released a statement on behalf of that committee, recommending that all their member schools drop their Native American mascots and nicknames. I was thrilled that the film had played a part in that decision, but nothing seemed to come of it afterwards.
I wasn’t at all prepared for the shock I would experience when, in 2004, the NCAA itself announced that the eighteen member schools with Native American nicknames or mascots would have to get rid of them or face penalties. That NCAA policy led to my home school, the University of Illinois, finally eliminating its racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek, the mascot that was the original target of my film. I was elated, not only for the result, but also for the fact that my work had played a role in the final outcome.
Of course, it hasn’t just been victory after victory. You’ve heard of the Washington Redskins, right? The Atlanta Braves? Kansas City Chiefs? The Cleveland Indians’ indefensibly racist cartoon logo, Chief Wahoo? All still there. When last fall’s once-every-hundred-year miracle occurred, and my boyhood team, the Chicago Cubs, were breaking the longest championship dry-spell in professional athletics, I couldn’t watch a single game because of the nauseating sight of Chief Wahoo on Cleveland’s uniforms. So there is much work still to be done.
But things are moving in the right direction. When Charlene Teters, the main character featured in In Whose Honor?, was selected as the ABC World News person of the week a few months after the film’s broadcast, anchor Peter Jennings practically apologized while introducing her so as not to offend his millions of pro-sports viewers. Yet by 2014, when Native American activist Amanda Blackhorse was suing to end the trademark protection for the Washington Redskins, both The Daily Show and South Park absolutely skewered the team, its owner, and its fans, without the slightest hint of apology. That’s one measure of progress. As for Amanda Blackhorse, she was first motivated to become involved in the fight against American Indian mascots after watching a documentary while she was a student at the University of Kansas. The film? In Whose Honor?
And the University of Kansas is hardly the exception. As an educational tool, In Whose Honor? is used in most every college and university in America today, and is one of the most requested films in the history of its educational distributor, New Day Films. After twenty years, its relevance as an educational text for teaching about not just mascots, but race, stereotyping, and identity continues unabated.
I have made several documentaries since that PBS broadcast of In Whose Honor?, some more successful in film festivals (ERASED), and some more successful in garnering awards (THE LORD IS NOT ON TRIAL HERE TODAY—a Peabody Award winner). But In Whose Honor? is by far the most impactful film I have ever made, and probably ever will. It’s really the crowning achievement of my life (other than, of course, my children). When I die, I suspect the obit in the local Champaign-Urbana newspaper will read ” Jay Rosenstein, made anti-Chief Illiniwek documentary.”
And you know what? If that’s the case, I couldn’t be more proud.
Stream In Whose Honor? for free from now until September 20. Visit the film’s New Day page, add a 14-day streaming license to your cart, and enter promo code NDNIWH at checkout. Happy viewing!