CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - An 81-year era comes to an end with the retirement of Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois' American Indian mascot.
The decision by the university's board of trustees came after two decades of protests stating Chief Illiniwek portrayed a degrading image of American Indians, rather than instilling pride in the university.
In 2005, the NCAA ruled that Chief Illiniwek offended American Indians and barred the university from hosting any postseason athletic events. Other universities were allowed to keep their mascots because some tribes, based near the universities, did not protest the activity.
The name ''Illini'' will continue, since it is merely a shortened version of Illinois, and the school will be allowed to continue the use of the term ''Fighting Illini.''
Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose cultural designs were used for the regalia, have praised the decision to retire the mascot. In 1982, OST Chief Frank Fools Crow sold regalia to the university. The OST executive committee recently passed a resolution asking that all the regalia be returned and that the mascot's dancing at sporting events cease.
''Now it is the time to heal and take responsibility for the history of Chief Illiniwek on our campus. To that end we expect that the university will act constructively in response to the Oglala Sioux requests and return the regalia to its rightful place,'' said John McKinn, a Maricopa Native of the Gila River Indian Community and assistant director of academic programming at the university's Native American House.
Lawrence Eppley, chairman of the university's board of trustees, announced the mascot's retirement, which he had predicted three years earlier.
''The Chief Illiniwek tradition inspired and thrilled members of the University of Illinois community for 80 years; it was created, carried on and enjoyed by people with great respect for tradition, and we appreciate their dedication and commitment,'' Eppley said.
Now that the mascot is gone, what lies ahead?
Questions are mounting about racism on campus and the treatment of American Indians and other minority students that have borne the brunt of racial acts over the years.
''Will they [the administration and board of trustees] demonstrate the leadership and integrity this moment calls for, or will they promote further animosity and racial polarization?'' asked Stephen Kaufman, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois.
Kaufman further asked if the administration would consider the degrading image portrayed by Chief Illiniwek as the reason for ending the practice, or if the university administration's decision was influenced by pressure from NCAA. (The NCAA responded to the decision to retire the mascot by removing any sanctions against the university.)
''For certain, ending the university's racial stereotyping of Native Americans is a huge positive act, but doing so for the right reasons could also foster a much-needed, respectful racial climate on the Champaign-Urbana campus,'' Kaufman said.
The end of Chief Illiniwek will not end racial dissention; in fact, after the announcement was made, two students filed a complaint in Champaign County Circuit Court to stop the decision. The court rejected the complaint.
A Feb. 1 forum was held in response to many alleged recent racist activities on campus and to open a dialogue for administration and students about racial injustice.
The Daily Illini, the school's newspaper, ran an editorial decrying the holding of the forum and asked that students and faculty not attend. Some 43 letters of response to that editorial on both sides of the issue give clear evidence that racial unrest is part of campus life at UIUC, and that the removal of the mascot will not significantly alter tensions.
Eppley alluded to the accurate recounting and safekeeping of the tradition as integral to the history of the university. Anti-Chief Illiniwek groups suggested that, if done with integrity, the past could become a valuable learning tool to smooth race relations on campus.
''We want to honor and thank all of those who have worked so hard and long on this issue. And while this is a moment of reflection, we know that retiring the performance of the mascot does not solve campus climate issues and we will continue to work with the campus and the community to address misinformation and miseducation about indigenous peoples, histories and cultures,'' McKinn said.