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Chief Illiniwek: Beloved by Students, (Still) Banned by the University

A story about a vote at the University of Illinois that overwhelming supported using Chief Illiniwek as the school's mascot, but it remains banned.

During the first week of March, students at the University of Illinois were asked if they supported having Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the university. By an almost 4 to 1 majority, they said they did. Students cast 9,003 votes in favor of Chief Illiniwek and 2,517 against. The mascot was eliminated in 2007 because the NCAA deemed Chief Illiniwek “hostile or abusive" to Native Americans.

This was not the first time students have voted on the measure nor was it the only effort pertaining to Chief Illiniwek. In 2008, the student body held a similar referendum and students also voted in support of the mascot then.

Despite the results, UI Chancellor Dr. Phyllis Wise says the chief will not return. According to Dr. Wise, the university is not bound by the results of student led referendums. “The university did not sponsor this election. The students put up this referendum, and they are permitted in referendum to ask any question they want to. Their vote is counted as advisory,” said Wise.

Chief Illiniwek: A Volatile History

Chief Illiniwek has been the mascot and official symbol of the UI campus since 1926. His first performance was October 30, 1926. At the conclusion of Chief Illiniwek’ s performance in 1926, a drum major dressed as the University of Pennsylvania’s Quaker mascot handed him a peace pipe and the two walked off the field arm in arm.

Since that time, 36 students have portrayed Chief Illiniwek, including one woman, Idelle Brooks, in 1943, due to the shortage of male students on campus during WWII.

Until 2007, Chief Illiniwek was UI’s symbol and athletic event mascot, portraying an American Indian in a Sioux chief’s regalia. Chief Illiniwek was played by a student who performed at athletic events. The mascot was retired in 2007 after the NCAA ruled the Chief Illiniwek a “hostile or abusive” mascot and threatened to disallow the university’s participation in NCAA championship events.

Prior to 2007, the mascot had been a subject of controversy for several decades as several American Indian tribes and organizations had asked for the discontinued use of the mascot. Though Chief Illiniwek did not perform alongside cheerleaders as most mascots, his dances consisted of crossing his arms, spins and jumping splits. As time passed other Big Ten universities refused to allow the chief to perform, citing the mascot offensive.

Chief Illiniwek wore actual Sioux regalia gifted to the university by Chief Frank Fools Crow. However, when Fools Crow discovered how the university was using the regalia, according to an Oglala Sioux Tribe resolution, he was disappointed and asked for their return.

According to rumors, the university replaced the original eagle feathers with turkey feathers. The original eagle feathers whereabouts are unknown. The regalia was returned to the Oglala Sioux Tribe in October of 2009.

Chief Illiniwek: A Majority of Supporters, a Minority of Opposers

In 1989, Charlene Teters, a graduate student from the Spokane Tribe began to protest the chief after her son and daughter had reacted adversely to seeing him at a basketball game. Since that time several organizations both for and against Chief Illiniwek were created or have come forward.

Such organizations that have come forward have included the NAACP, the National Congress of American Indians, Amnesty International and the National Indian Education Association. Campus organizations such as the Native American House and the American Indian Studies program also called for the mascot’s dismissal.

Organizations in support of the mascot have included the Honor the Chief Society and the Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation as well as the “Council of Chiefs” made up of UI alumni that were once themselves portrayers of Chief Illiniwek.

When the Campus Spirit Revival organization, led by former Native American and Indigenous Student Organization leader Thomas Ferrarell, Ojibwe, started efforts in 2012 to hold an alternative mascot submission contest, he and other students were met by an opposing group, Stop Campus Spirit Revival, who fought the constitutionality of the contest.

According to former student body president David Pileski, who sponsored the efforts of Campus Spirit Revival, the path to moving forward has been met with consistent resistance.

“Last year when I was student body president I offered a resolution to cosponsor and work with a group of students from the Native American House. They were promoting a student artwork competition with the goal of having a campus wide poll to see what ideas students connected with the best. We have had a few delays,” said Pileski.

“We were able to have the vote this January but unfortunately some students that hadn't previously heard about it were upset and they filed a procedural gesture,” he said.

Pileski says he doesn’t have strong feelings either way for the chief, but he does believe in moving forward and respecting the beliefs of others. “I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a privileged middle-class white family. I understand and recognize that what I associate with the image of the chief is going to be different than what it is for someone else.”

But Pileski says it is important to support the beliefs of others. “I was not going to perpetuate the problem on this campus and I really wanted to contribute to a discussion moving forward,” he said.

For the newly appointed Student Senator and head of Stop Campus Spirit Revival, Josh Good, since the chief only appeared at halftimes, did not pick fights with other mascots and never wavered in facial expression or a set routine, Good feels the chief should be restored as the official symbol of the University of Illinois.

“I have always been proud to be an Illini and took great pride with Chief Illiniwek being our symbol especially due to having Cherokee heritage on my father’s side. I always thought to have a symbol like Chief Illiniwek that was so revered here by students and alumni was something that was truly unique to our university,” he said.

It’s About Honor

For former UI student Ferrarell, moving away from Chief Illiniwek is much more than just moving forward, it is about a disregard for what he believes. “They have this idea that they are honoring Native Americans. They think that we are trying to remove them from honoring tradition and we are disgracing Native Americans by doing this,” says Ferrarell.

He also says the biggest problem is not adopting a new mascot. “If we do not put something in place of Chief Illiniwek, people are going to gravitate right back to that 80-year tradition. Apparently, the guy still shows up at games and does all the same chants and music. The only difference is that he is not honored at halftime.”

According to Wise, “Since the Board of Trustees voted against using Chief Illiniwek as the symbol, I do not believe there is any reason to bring him back.”

The University’s Last Word

Though Chancellor Wise states the university has not backed the efforts of students pro or con on Chief Illiniwek, she also sates there have not been any efforts to create a new mascot. Wise did say the UI campus would be open to discussion.

“We want to have meaningful discussions and we want this to be a rich learning environment, for our faculty our staff and our students. Many universities do have pow wows which are run by Native American tribes and then bring in all sorts of wonderful things for the students. We need to be thinking about those kinds of events,” said Wise.

According to Ferrarell, who has recently written an open letter to the university and has graduated in Environmental Sciences says “It is great what Chancellor Wise said, but it is not enough. You cannot just remove it, you have to say why.”