The Sad Resurrection of Chief Illiniwek

Last weekend an unfortunate figure returned to the University of Illinois, and it wasn’t Jeff George. Chief Illiniwek, the former school mascot, was back to adorn floats and assorted regalia at Homecoming to the cheers of some and the bitter horror of those who thought the feathered one had been retired for good.

You may have thought that the Chief was banned last year after the NCAA called Illiniwek a “hostile or abusive” mascot and prevented the school from hosting postseason games as long as it paraded him about. You may have thought Illinois had joined dozens of other schools from Stanford to St. John’s in putting Native American caricatures to bed. You thought wrong.

A victory 20 years in the making was overturned when Illinois chancellor Richard Herman declared that the Homecoming ban violated the U.S. constitution saying, “The University values free speech and free expression and considers Homecoming floats, decorations, costumes and related signage all representations of such personal expression.”

Yes, our forefathers fought and died to protect the right to display caricatures of the conquered at public institutions of higher learning. The word Illiniwek means “tribe of superior men.” In making the decision to allow Chief Illiniwek to return, Herman acted in a manner of the inferior, following instead of leading.

Those whose heart is with the dancing chief were thrilled, calling Homecoming “a victory parade.” The organization Students for Chief Illini issued a statement saying that the original policy was a “slap in the face to people in the community to say you can’t support your symbol.” In an irony that could only be found in the bizarre lexicon of university political correctness, the group uses the world “symbol” instead of “mascot” because the term “mascot” is offensive to Chief Illiniwek.

Keep in mind, that there never was a Chief Illiniwek. No one with that name ever existed. His costume is not in keeping with anything the Illini tribe ever wore and the dance at halftime was created in 1926 by the Boy Scouts. But by all means support such a noble symbol.

The Chief was certainly celebrated at Homecoming. No counter protestors were reported and thousands of attendees wore Chief regalia. Although no Native American organizations support the Chief, he was celebrated lustily.

The same students and alumni that clamor for the Chief as a symbol of Native American nobility, put far more time and energy into a fictional chief than aiding actual Native Americans. Students of Native American descent are a mere 0.2% of the overall student population, and 0.1% of the faculty. “Honoring” Native Americans is confined to a white guy in buckskin pants and feathers (only whites have portrayed the Chief throughout it’s 81-year history).

There was little said about the fact that while Chief Illiniwek never existed, the Illini tribe did. They were torn apart, forcibly removed so schools like Illinois could take root. Chief Ron Froman of the Peoria tribe once said of the Chief, “I don’t think it was to honor us, because, hell, they ran our (butts) out of Illinois.”

Since there is nothing honorable about resurrecting the Chief, is it then an issue of freedom of speech? In a letter to Chancellor Herman, professor Antonia Darder wrote, “If a float maker wants to use KKK imagery or a noose hanging from a tree on a homecoming float, is this now also acceptable under the auspices of ‘free expression?’ Or if a float maker wants to use images of people copulating or nude participants on a float, would this also be accepted as the freedom of personal expression? And if not, why not? Certainly if public nudity is considered immoral or at least inappropriate, why not public racism?”

This is the climate in which Herman resurrects the Chief. The latest in this marathon battle of memory, history, and the role of sports in this process comes two weeks after the death of Native American activist and longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, Vernon Bellecourt.

Bellecourt spent years as a thorn in the side of organizations like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, demanding that they change their mascots. He once said, “Our detractors always say, ‘We are honoring you.’ It’s not an honor. In whose honor, we have to ask. Beginning with the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, about 16 million of us were wiped out, including whole villages in Washington.”

To other teams with Indian nicknames and to their fans, he said, “No more chicken feathers … No more paint on faces. The chop stops here.”

Maybe the University of Illinois should step up and honor Bellecourt by putting Chief Illiniwek to rest — for good..

Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: edgeofsports@gmail.com. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ruben B. Botello said on October 31st, 2007 at 6:30am #

    How much more racist can “higher education” get?

    It is clear the University of Illinois is preparing young minds to become white-collar racists intent on perpetuating the Anglo-American myth that “Indians” are still fair game because of their “inferior nature” when it comes to cultural genocide.

    It is not enough that the ancestral lands and freedoms of today’s Native Americans were stolen by the offspring of the European savages that invaded the Americas not so long ago. Nor is this about “freedom of speech,” this is about institutionalized racism, protected by stone-cold racists in three-piece suits who pretend to be “civilized” in their efforts to keep indigenous Americans in their place, i.e., poor and oppressed.

    Mimicking the memory of Chief Illiniwek does nothing to promote or inspire Native Americans to continue their education in “Whiteman schools.” In fact, this racist act inspires Native Americans to hate “higher education,” at least in blatantly racist colleges and universities like the University of Illinois.

    And the White majority wonders why so many poor and oppressed people protested so long and hard in the Sixties and Seventies. There’s more White racism now than ever before, thanks to upper class racists like Illinois chancellor Richard Herman.

  2. Illini Grad said on October 31st, 2007 at 12:23pm #

    I am not going to go into a long discussion about this topic. However, I would like to point out that the author showed a blatant disregard for the history of Chief Illiniwek and the state of Illinois. He also has shown a lack of knowledge of the law and freedom of speech. As someone holding themselves out as a journalist, he should be more familiar with the First Amendment and take it to heart.

  3. WARONRACISM said on October 31st, 2007 at 7:07pm #

    If the university and whoever is willing to share in all there logo profits say 50% with the indians to develop economic development on the reservations then we will approve the chief.

  4. Sam said on October 31st, 2007 at 9:01pm #

    This is mindless and pointless posturing. The use of Native American names, figures, etc. is in no way a triumphalism of western culture. This is a non-issue. Cripes! My people are from the British Isles – largely conquered, screwed, and tattooed by those that came later. It happens. My Welsh and Irish and Scots flags still fly on my car, in front of my home, etc. Thank the way things go that even my name has old forms within it; in America we still have towns, counties, and team mascots that proclaim the past. Crap, judging from the color of my father’s eyes and skin, he was ( and I by inheritance) part Roman, or very recently African. You should be better spending your time bemoaning the fact that the Cleveland INDIANS lost the chance to go to the World Series. (By the way, when Jerry Seinfeld (in some episode of “Seinfeld”) is embarrassed by the phrase “Indian giver” he should have known that the “Indian giver” was the US government: never met a contract yet which could not be reneged on.) To adopt Native American tribals as models of fighting spirit cannot be an affront to anyone who thinks things through. These “were” great nations. Who knows what might happen in these nations in the future. If the Scots and Irish can preserve the western world and form it, a world based on a Roman dominion model, who knows what the tribes/nations of the Americas can do.

  5. NDN MAMA said on October 31st, 2007 at 10:03pm #

    Wow, some people will just never get it! So according to “Illini Grad”, freedom of speech is more important than respect for another race and culture other than his own!? “the author showed a blatant disregard for the history of Chief Illiniwek and the state of Illinois.” Do you know the history of Illinois? Do you realize there was no such person as Chief Illiniwek? And the Illini didn’t consist of white men dressed up as Indians?! Illinois’ history is not based upon Uof I and the creation of Chief Illiniwek. Pick up a book and learn about some REAL history!

    Get over it, a mascot is not representive of our people, and you are so white-washed to realize that. It’s sad how people who don’t have a culture, think nothing of disrespecting others. Have pride in where you come from, your history, not a racist mascot to be hailed at sports games.

    After all the struggles Natives have been put through, after the millions that were killed, and all that are living in poverty after everything’s been taken from them…we are supposed to also allow you to dress up as us and run and jump around like an idiot? That’s showing Natives respect?! How about listening to them when they say it’s disrespectful and it’s racist? That’d be showing them some kind of respect.

    Talk to some REAL Natives and understand that we are PROUD people, and as much as you’d like to keep Chief Illiniwek around, and no matter how you try to justify it, we will keep on fighting against it. Like my Uncle Vernon. He was a REAL man that should be respected and highly regarded. Unlike a white kid playing Indian.

    R.I.P. VERNON BELLECOURT
    WE WILL KEEP FIGHTING YOUR FIGHT..

  6. Ivan said on November 1st, 2007 at 7:15am #

    It’s like

    It’s like the the national soccer team of Turky having a little Armenian soccer player as a “simbol”.
    I believe that all this stupid cheering crowd for Chief Illiniwek is not counting on the fact that America commited genocide against the Illie people.
    What about the next basquetball world cup, the American team having an Iraq oil worker as a mascot?

  7. JBPM said on November 1st, 2007 at 2:59pm #

    I wouldn’t get too bothered about this “resurgence” of the Chief. The major victory was won earlier this year when his appearances at games and on merchandise was finally ended. Richard Hermann was probably just capitulating to the big donor alums who wanted to wave their Chief regalia at homecoming. Sad, particularly for a chancellor who actually seems to have a lot of his shit together, but not altogether unexpected.

    And I’ve got to say, this comment—”freedom of speech is more important than respect for another race and culture other than his own?”—stirred up a lot of conflict in me. On the one hand, I’d sure love it if we were all a lot kinder and more respectful toward one another. However, I’m not sure that controlling people’s speech is such a hot idea either. Guess I’m just too big of a fan of the Enlightenment dictum, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend unto the death your right to say it.”

    Just my 2 cents, as a progressive working class white guy in Urbana.

  8. hp said on November 2nd, 2007 at 12:04pm #

    The only true holocaust i believe ever happened and look at what the country, abetted by the media, has done for our natives.
    They need more lawyers and bankers.

  9. PDS said on November 26th, 2007 at 2:42pm #

    Actually, you’re factually incorrect. At least 2 Latino students have portrayed Chief Illiniwek. Then again, to this author and the volleyers of the peanut gallery, it’s probably all the same.

  10. paul said on December 9th, 2007 at 11:40am #

    are American Indians the only group that can feel offended?

    if any of you really felt it was a fight worth fighting, how about getting rid of the offensive Notre Dame nickname and mascot as well??