I am a graduate of what was then called the College of Agriculture when I attended the University of Illinois back in the early eighties. Early in my college career, I remember attending an event sponsored by the Agronomy Club where they had T-shirts for sale featuring a cartoon image of a stereotypical Indian: beak nose, bare chest puffed out, a single feather sprouting from the back of a headband. He was standing next to a stalk of corn and leaning on a soil auger. I assumed the image had some sort of connection with the Fighting Illini and the Chief Illiniwek imagery.
As a person of mixed American Indian and European ancestry, I had actually had a positive feeling about how Chief Illiniwek was portrayed, but conversely this little cartoon Indian didn’t hold much appeal to me…that is until the Agronomy Club advisor explained to me what the image was all about. Turns out, the image didn’t have anything to do with the Illini tradition, but was meant to be a depiction of Squanto.
Although some of the facts have been lost to time, many American schoolchildren have heard the story of the Wampanoag man who helped the Pilgrims weather their first years in the New World. Squanto had been a captive of earlier settlers and learned English very well. He was sent to converse with these strangers and help them to understand what wild flora and fauna were edible in the unfamiliar world that they had come to settle. Perhaps more importantly, he taught them how to grow the now all-American staple crop: corn. The story goes that Squanto even taught these pilgrims early agriculture technologies like bio-solid fertilization using dead fish and crop rotation with beans and squash.
What the School of Agriculture was trying to convey with the image on the T-shirt was the American Indian contribution to modern agriculture; honoring Squanto as the country’s first agronomist. Admittedly, I still didn’t like the picture, but I gained a much greater appreciation of what the Agronomy Club was doing. I thought it was pretty cool to see the one of the nation’s premier agricultural colleges acknowledging the role American Indians played in not only introducing the settlers to the crop that is still king throughout the Midwest, but also the skill in cultivating it in a sustainable manner to increase yields.
To be honest I didn’t buy the shirt, and even though I was impressed by the meaning at the time, I didn’t give the image much more thought. Years later, when I returned to the area for a homecoming event, I learned the club had given up the Squanto symbolism and replaced it with entirely with the moldboard plow (a technology that was perfected in Illinois by John Deere) as a symbol of the club. As an agronomist, I could appreciate the contribution of John Deere to modern agriculture, too…but as an environmentalist, I also have a little pang of angst when I think about all of that native prairie that was turned under by the plow and all of the erosion from those bare soils.
When I asked why they ditched Squanto for the plow, I was told that Squanto had become a victim of a handful of complaints over the use of American Indian imagery (the same sort of complaints that would later lead to the official retirement of the Chief). I couldn’t get a good answer as to why there wasn’t more of an attempt to replace the cartoonish picture with something more acceptable.
I realize now that nothing short of the total removal of any American Indian symbolism would satisfy the complainers. Still, I think all cultures involved have truly lost something here at the University of Illinois. Maybe I’m still naïve after all of these years, but I still can’t help but think there must be a way we can share elements of our cultures.
To this day, the Agronomy Club, now “Field & Furrow”, utilizes the plow as their ultimate symbol of American Agriculture. The Squanto imagery is completely expunged, save a few retro stickers that still adorn the windows of Turner Hall. For our modern generations unlucky enough not to have learned the contributions of Squanto in childhood, Illinois continues to ignore the opportunity for that cultural and historical education. Corn remains king in Illinois, but the contributions of America’s first agronomist who helped crown that wonder-crop are completely ignored…lost forever in the effort of student enlightenment. If Illinois emerges as a producer in something other than corn, it may be irony.