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Harjo: Illiniwek fans missed the Indians for the 'Chief'

"Chief Illiniwek'' was 81 years old when he was finally forced to retire on Feb. 21. His many fans are pledging undying devotion to their ''Chief'' and cursing Indians and everyone else who made him stop dancing.

This sounds like one of those conflict television programs that academicians look down on, but it's not. This gnashing of teeth and idolatry is coming from the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois and these fanatical devotees are alumni of the esteemed school.

UIUC, home of the ''Fighting Illini'' sports teams, is part of the ''Big Ten'' conference and the NCAA's 1-A division. Other Big Ten schools said they'd play games with UIUC, but it had to leave Illiniwek at home.

The NCAA told UIUC it couldn't play in championship games at all if it brought Illiniwek. In order to host playoffs, UIUC had to give up the Chief.

The Chief was a halftime performance character portrayed by a white student in red face. The barefooted chief did turns and leaps in a buckskin costume and a garish headdress of orange, red, black and white feathers.

Chief performers, past and present, banded together in a ''Council of Chiefs.'' Two enactors wrapped themselves in the First Amendment the way they'd so often donned their Chief costume and went to court for their ''right'' to play ''Indian.''

They asked a state judge to save their careers as the Chief - claiming that UIUC was violating their free speech, freedom of assembly and academic freedom - but the judge denied their request.

Usually a source of fascination and amusement, this mascot worship stopped being funny when it turned into Chief hysteria.

To all those fans that are weeping and wailing over the Chief, I can only say one thing: Get a grip!

Pull yourselves together and go learn something about real Native people. Not any sports symbol; not a cartoon version of a historical Indian figure; not the Indian butter maiden; and not an Indian in a cupboard.

Learn about actual flesh and blood, life-sized Native people.

If you simply must have an ''Indian'' mascot nexus, learn about the 2,000 dead mascots and the real Indian people who piled them onto the bonfire of history.

Learn about the National Indian Youth Council and its great Ponca leader, Clyde

Warrior, and the Native students at the University of Oklahoma who started in the early 1960s to get rid of the OU mascot, ''Little Red.'' They finally succeeded in 1970, with help from a cross-cultural coalition, much like the one that brought an end to UIUC's mascot.

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After ''Little Red'' was retired, Stanford University and Dartmouth College dropped their ''Indians'' and Syracuse University traded the ''Saltine Warrior'' for the ''Orange.'' Two-thirds of all the ''Indian'' references in American sports have fallen since 1970, and fewer than 1,000 remain.

I have a theory that some of the Chief fans really don't disrespect Native people. They just don't know any.

While fans were collecting their orange Chief T-shirts, mugs, caps and bumper stickers, they missed a few things.

The first dozen years in the life of UIUC's racial mascot were the last dozen years of real life Yankton Sioux author Zitkala-Sa, well-known for writing ''Why I Am a Pagan.'' Also known as Gertrude Bonnin, she was a musician, composer and the first Native person to write an opera.

Zitkala-Sa taught at the first federal Indian boarding school and later wrote criticisms that helped close its doors. She was an early American Indian rights advocate in Washington, D.C. In the same year that fans concocted the prancing Chief, Zitkala-Sa was busy founding and leading the National Council of American Indians.

Maria Tallchief, Osage, no longer dances, but when she did dance she was a prima ballerina: graceful, dignified and breathtaking. She inspired countless young people to perform. At the same age as the Chief, Tallchief has never caricatured anyone.

Phillip Deere was born in the same year that Chief Illiniwek was invented. A Muscogee ceremonial leader from Nuyaka Tribal Town, he organized leadership and stickball camps for Muscogee youth and was responsible for encouraging a generation of young people to continue and return to Native traditional ways. He often said that people in D.C. cared more for the Washington football team than they did for real Native people.

It's painful to think that Deere's lifespan was 22 years shorter than the Chief's run and that the passing of the real man was less noticed than the retirement of the mascot.

Like the Chief, Leon Shenandoah lived to be 81. He was a real chief; an Onondaga chief, a Haudenosaunee head chief, the Tadodaho of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He lived a life of service. He danced at All-Night Dance, but only after bearing the weight of all the women's shawls, of all their sorrows.

Shenandoah spoke, but only after listening to what others had to say. He, like many other Native leaders, left a rich legacy of chiefly wisdom.

This richness of spirit can fill empty places. Find out about Native people now departed and what gifts they left for us: Mad Bear Anderson, Paul Bernal, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, Walt Bresette, Pete Catches, Lucy Covington, Joe DeLaCruz, Carl Gorman, Martha Grass, Bruce Miller, Richard LaCourse, Robert Lewis, Browning Pipestem, David Risling, Esther Ross, Reuben A. Snake Jr., David Sohappy, Frank Tenorio and Annie Dodge Wauneka.

Learn about the heroes among us and celebrate them: Hank Adams, Herman Agoyo, Manley Begay, Ramona Bennett, David Bradley, Maiselle Bridges, Roger Buffalohead, Greg Cajete, John Echohawk, Walter Echo-Hawk, Billy Frank Jr., Joel Frank, Forrest J. Gerard, Russell Jim, Bob Haozous, Joy Harjo, Keith Harper, Lance Henson, Tim Johnson, Oren Lyons, Henrietta Mann, Chris McNeill, N. Scott Momaday, Alan Parker, Allen V. Pinkham, Tom Porter, James Riding In, Lois Risling, Mateo Romero, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Wes Studi, Robert Trepp, John Trudell, Carey Vicenti, Floyd Westerman, W. Richard West, Richard Ray Whitman, Dan Wildcat, David Wilkins, Frances Wise, Pemina Yellowbird and Patricia Zell.

Read or listen to anything by Vine Deloria Jr. or John Mohawk. Look at anything by T.C. Cannon, Harry Fonseca, R.C. Gorman, Allen Houser, George Morrison, Fritz Scholder or Pablita Velarde.

After even a brief exploration, Illiniwek fans, you may kick yourself over the great many Indian people you missed while following the Chief.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.