Coming home from a wonderful 50th reunion at Knox, I was overwhelmed. It was very moving to sing the Knox Hymn with the choir. It was heartwarming to see so many of my fellow classmates, and it was heartbreaking to look at the Memorial Board and see classmates no longer with us. Perhaps because of those missing classmates, I feel it necessary to write about the ongoing controversy over the term “Siwash.” I applaud the continuing idealism of current Knox students but I am grieved that there is such a lack of understanding for the alumni attachment to and honor for the term “Siwash.” Let me explain why.
The origin of the term is a moot point. Whether George Fitch knew and understood the negative connotations of the term and made use of it for that reason or whether as a satirist, or he used it as a substitute for “Old Hogwash,” is now beside the point. Now that the negative connotations of this word have been exposed, you must wonder why the alumni are still hesitant to accept what seems like a simple and needed correction. There are reasons for the alumni’s hesitancy that are worth understanding.
Take the use of the word “mascot.” In the The Knox Student article, the word “mascot” was used four times; in the editorial it was used five. At no time was “Siwash” a mascot. A mascot is a physical representation of the thing itself. The university at which I taught has a “Max the Griffon”; my husband’s institution has a “Bobby Bearcat.” At no time was there ever a representation of a Native American “mascot” on the Knox campus. Old Siwash is most properly called a nickname, which is a term used less frequently in both articles (twice in the article, zero in the editorial). The analogy of Siwash to the Confederate Flag does not stand. The Confederate Flag was a “symbol” (neither a mascot or a nickname). Those who followed the Confederate Flag knew what they were fighting for: the continuation of slavery and Southern secession. One of the greatest things Knox has to teach is a preciseness in language and thinking.
To tell the truth, I never knew what Old Siwash meant, and I suspect many of my classmates would agree. It may have been mysterious, but it certainly wasn’t derogatory. For the 80-plus years that Knox used the name, students, professors and administrators were unaware of such connotations.
And here we come to the heart of the matter.
Under the banner of Old Siwash, Knox students and professors fought in World War II. More personally, in the 1960s and 70s,
Siwashers attended the March on Washington with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Siwashers rode Freedom buses to the deep South to protest segregation.
Siwashers fought for equal rights for women on campus and in the world.
Siwashers protested AND served in the Vietnam War.
Siwashers joined the Peace Corps in record numbers.
Siwashers honored and participated in working toward equal rights for African Americans, Jews, Native Americans, women and international students.
Siwashers protested the attempt by Richard Nixon to subvert the Constitution of the United States.
This list could go on and on, and if you look closely today, you will find these same Siwashers fighting against the Patriot Act and Guantanamo, and fighting for rights for LGBTQ people.
In other words, to reduce the commitment and achievement of generations of Knox Siwashers to an unwillingness to listen to “our progressive opinions” denigrates these achievements.
Further, to set up a stand to exchange Siwash merchandise for Prairie Fire merchandise is an insult in that such an exchange would be one of our achievements for your “progressive opinions.”
Lastly, in seeking to “eradicate” Siwash from Knox history and language — not publishing pictures which contain the term, etc. — you “eradicate” much more than a politically offensive term. You eradicate 80 or more years of Knox history of people who marched, fought and acted in the cause of human rights. Repairing an ancient wrong is a worthy goal, but seeking to do so by wiping out the past creates an equal wrong. Those who “cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it.” Denial does not work. I do not expect current classes to embrace and become “Siwashers”; you know things we didn’t. But assuming that Alumni connection to the term “Siwash” is a matter of stupidity, stubbornness or “old fartism,” denies you a history and creates a gaping hole in the history of Knox.
Karen Uitvlugt Fulton
Class of 1965