Author of dropped U of I chant says knowledge beats censorship
The author of University of Illinois’ “Fighting Illini War Chant” song, which was dropped last summer, wants the chancellor “to step up and be cutting edge in this whole issue.”
"Make a difference in the lives of people on the reservations instead of wiping all symbols and music that is related to Native Americans out of the university and the minds of all of us," alumnus Beth Nuss, who came up with the chant in the early 1980s, told the Prairie State Wire. "That’s the easy way out. Since when did my beloved university ever believe in taking the easy way out?"
Chancellor Robert Jones retired the war chant last summer, saying it was "time for us to stop having that as part of our game-day experience."
Nuss, who attended U of I from 1978 to 1982 for her undergraduate studies and from 1985 to 1987 for graduate studies, said she came up with the war chant during a 1980-81 basketball season home game.
"Band students were encouraged to be creative and contribute ideas to the band, and during a game, the idea came to me to play the simple melody, which I had heard at some point in my childhood," she said.
Nuss recalled developing the harmony and the drum beat with fellow student Peter Griffin, who later was director of the Marching Illini. It was Griffin who added a drone to the melody and harmony, "and we had our sections begin to play the 'cheer,'" Nuss said.
"Director Gary Smith was standing off to the side of the band, in conversation with someone from the athletic department," Nunn said. "When he heard us playing, he ran over shouting at us to stop because he hadn't given us permission to play. Suddenly, he looked up above the band at the crowd, and seeing their enthusiastic reaction to the cheer, he recanted and said, 'Nevermind; keep playing, keep playing.'"
Nuss said Smith then asked her to teach the tune to the entire band.
"After that, our band continued to play the simple cheer," Nuss said. "A few years later, the cheer was revised, adding more parts, making the cheer more exciting. The name was then also changed to 'War Chant.'"
Nunn said her fondest memories of the chant are seeing Illini fans on their feet, "hands high in the air, clapping to the tune."
"The energy and excitement in Memorial Stadium or the Assembly Hall always seemed so intense when the 'War Chant' was played."
The university's decision to drop the chant amounts to censorship, Nuss said.
"I sincerely fear censorship," Nuss said. "This is not something we should take lightly. This is a simple short 'cheer.' It has no words to offend. Its intention was not meant to offend. Its intention was meant to inspire the basketball team and the fans. Its intention was to do what most music does."
Music moves the emotions, Nuss said.
"How is it OK to initiate censorship of music?" she asked. "Where does censorship stop?"
As an example, Nuss pointed to Richard Wagner, a German composer of some of the most highly revered music, particularly operas, but who has been accused of anti-Semitic sentiments in his work.
"Although he was not alive during Hitler’s Nazi reign, Wagner's music was said to have been adored by Hitler and his regime, and therefore, by association, and along with Wagner’s known stance against Jews, along with other alleged accusations, his music could be considered very controversial, hurtful, insulting, etc.," Nuss said. "Should all German composers' music be banned?
"I personally have ancestors who were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Should I ask the chancellor to ban all German composers' music from campus? Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Handel, etc., were German composers. Should we ban all their music? Where does this stop? What good does censorship do? This leads me to wonder what other things have been censored at the university if something as simple as a cheer can be censored."
Nuss said she acknowledges "so many wrongs were done to our Native Americans" over the centuries that profoundly and permanently changed their lives."
"Since the beginning of time, mankind has committed horrific wrongs against each other," Nuss said. "And as we learn of these issues and continue to study history, hopefully mankind will learn and seek to never commit such atrocities ever again."
However, that begs questions about whether to erase and eliminate the symbols of these people or "bring out the images and their current plight, so it can be known, addressed and bring pride and aid to them instead?"
The music should be taken in the way it was intended, Nuss said.
"Absolutely no disrespect was intended," she said. "In fact, pride was intended. Fighting a tough fight, inspiring the team, those were the sincere intentions when I came up with this short tune, nothing more. It is non-productive to twist alternative negative thoughts into things where there were no such intentions."
Instead of dropping the chant, Nuss recommends the university make the Chief a spokesman for the modern plight of native peoples, particularly those living on reservations. That idea was suggested to her by members of the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes, Nuss said.
"This can help us all gain awareness of their needs to address poverty, health-care issues, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, lack of jobs, etc., on reservations," she said.
The university also could host exchanges and forums among members of various tribes, create internships on reservations and on campus as a way to create jobs, build revenue and provide people with resources and hope, Nuss said.
"How about the College of ACES initiate internships on reservations to help tribes with livestock and crop production," Nuss said. "The new College of Medicine can head out to reservations to hold health clinics. I could go on and on with these ideas.
"What if the chancellor meets with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team to discuss if they would be willing to collaborate and give funds to help pay for these ideas? What if the university makes a difference in the lives of others instead of crying about hurt feelings."