Chief Illiniwek Essay, Research Paper
The Struggle for Chief Illiniwek
Imagine going to a University of Illinois sporting event and not seeing Chief
Illiniwek perform at half time. This may soon be the case. Many Native Americans feel
that the symbol of Chief Illiniwek portrays a racist stereotype, but because Chief Illiniwek
represents the pride for athletics, as well as respect for the University of Illinois itself, he
should not be dismissed as mascot and swapped with some common, unoriginal
replacement. The dismissal of the chief would be an outrage.
The tradition of Chief Illiniwek was started on October 30, 1926, during a football
game against the University of Pennsylvania(Beckham 1). Also according to Beckham,
Lester Leutweiler, who portrayed the first Chief Illiniwek, was chosen because he had
studied Native American dance and leather work as a boy scout. Leutweiler made the first
Chief Illiniwek custom and created the first dance(1). Of all the students that have
portrayed Chief Illiniwek, only one was a female. The second student who portrayed
Chief Illiniwek was Webber Borchers. Borchers was the first student who portrayed the
chief to wear an authentic Native American outfit. He traveled to a South Dakota
reservation, where he stayed for a couple months, and an elderly Native American woman
and her apprentice hand crafted the outfit for him.
On September 25, 1982, Sioux Chief Frank Fools Crow traveled to the University
of Illinois with fellow Sioux elders Anthony Whirlwind Horse and Joe American
Horse(Welker 1). Chief Frank Fools Crow was considered the greatest Native American
spiritual leader of the nineteenth century. During half time ceremony, Chief Fools Crow
gave the University of Illinois the regalia that are currently worn by Chief Illiniwek(Welker
1). The regalia were Chief Fools Crow’s own, which was handcrafted by his wife. Many
say Chief Fools Crow was proud to present the University of Illinois with the gift because
his work and his wife’s would be shared and be seen by many.
“The power and the ways are given to us to be passed on to others. To think
anything else is pure selfishness. We get more by giving them away, and if we do not give
them away, we lose them,” the highly respected Chief Fools Crow once stated(Welker 1).
Sadly enough, Chief Fools Crow passed away in 1989(Smith 1). The dance Chief
Illiniwek performs is a pow wow dance, which is a way of meeting together, to join in
dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships, and making new ones. As stated on
http://www.geocities.com, Chief Illiniwek’s dance is a type of Oglala-Lakota Sioux dance
called Fancy dance, which is celebratory in nature, has no religious, war, or ceremonial
significance. The origin of pow wow is believed to be the societies of the Poncha and
other Southern Plains tribes(1). These dances may have had different meaning in the past,
but today they are social dances. Although dance styles and content have changed, their
meaning and importance has not. The dance consists of two main parts, the downfield
dance and the solo dance. The Chief performs the dance with the Marching Illini during
what is called the Three in One. The Three in One consists of three traditional University
of Illinois songs; “Pride of the Illini”, “March of the Illini”, “Hail to the Orange”(Beckham
1). This celebrated tradition has been performed at the conclusion of every half time show
in Memorial Stadium for nearly seventy-five years.
On October 16, 1998 Charlene Teters, founder of anti-chief movement, spoke at
the University YMCA(Chavez 1). The majority of those who attended were white males
and Latinos. She was one of three Native American students recruited to the University
of Illinois, to pursue her bachelor’s in art, from the Art Institute of Native
Americans(”Sculpture” 1). She is the Senior Editor for Indian Artist Magazine and is a
Spokane Indian. She discovered that the campus was insensitive to Native American
students. She found degrading images of the Chief; such as a bar that is called Home of
the Drinking Illini that has a picture of a falling intoxicated Indian, toilet paper with the
Chief’s face on every sheet, and a door mat with the Chief’s face on it which was worn out.
The reason Teters started the anti-Chief movement was for her kids. She did not
say in what year, but she took her two kids to a basketball game and during the half time
show she noticed her kids slouch into their chair like they wanted to disappear. What they
saw was the Chief, which they had always been taught to hold in high honor, making a
fool of himself and thus embarrassing Native Americans. At the following home game
Teters, by herself, decided to protest and she was treated without any respect. People spit
on her, kicked her, and the media tried to ridicule her(Chavez 1). All this backfired and
she won the support that she needed to start and continue to fight against the Chief. She
has described how and why she and many others feel that the Illiniwek type of activities,
symbols, logos, regalia, mascots, and many inauthenticities are blows to Indian pride and
self-esteem since they constitute non-respect of important rituals.
Team nicknames and mascots are surprisingly controversial issues, but it is rarely
hard to figure out the right answer. Eisenberg states that to detractors, he is “MC
Hammer meets Richard Simmons,” as Sports Illustrated put it(4). To hordes of alumni
from the University of Illinois, he is the living distillation of the most memorable moments
of their youth. To everyone else, he is Chief Illiniwek. While opponents argue the mascot
is degrading to Native Americans, supporters say he is a source of University pride.
For the last thirty years, efforts have been made to do away with the dancing
Illiniwek. The mascot, a seventy-five year old University tradition, has been under debate
for more than a decade. He is represented by a student who paints his face, wears a
costume and headdress from the Oglala-Lakota Sioux tribe and dances at the half time
shows at varsity football and basketball games(McSherry Breslin 7).
Although a great deal has been written about the controversy of using fake Indians
to get fans pumped up at football games, it took an entire book to give full vent to the
subject. Carol Spindel does this admirably and even handedly in Dancing at Half time:
Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots. “In Whose Honor?” is a one
hour program that was first aired on PBS stations around the country and that put the
university at the center of the suddenly revitalized movement to do away with using Indian
nicknames, symbols, and rituals at sporting events. In Los Angeles, “In Whose Honor?”
has become a central part of a school board debate on whether city high schools should
drop their Indian nicknames(”Documentary” 5).
It has been more than twenty years since Stanford University retired its Indian
mascot, but the Fighting Illini stick obstreperously to their guns. Gone but not forgotten
is Chief Noc-A-Homa, the retired mascot of the Atlanta Braves, who would “whoop”
around a makeshift teepee like a victim of Tourette’s Syndrome being pursued by a swarm
of bees the Braves hit a home run. The good people at the University of Illinois
designated the fictitious chief as their mascot and took him in as one of their own, insisting
that Illiniwek was a faithful representation of the Indian leaders encountered by the first
European explorers in today’s Illinois.
After the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s, the whole notion of naming a school
mascot after an Indian chief became seriously offensive to a large number of people. And
the biggest problem is ignorance. If the University was more aware of what Native
Americans are about, they would not have a mascot of Native American descent. They
would be ashamed. No matter what the board does, it is not an issue that is going to go
Why is it that Native Americans seem to be the only ones who take issues with the
nicknames and mascots of athletic teams? No one ever hears outrage from the
Irish-American community over Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. “And why aren’t the
Christians upset with the New Orleans Saints or the Anaheim Angels”(McDermott 24)?
Instead, a small minority can not stand it that popular culture, through athletic teams,
embraces Native American symbols so dearly. Because a small fraction of a race does not
like a nickname or a mascot, that is not a good enough reason to retire it. This is not
about honoring Indian people. It’s about acting honorably(”U of I Senate” 14). To us and
many others, the chief bespeaks courage, tenacity and endurance in the face of heavy
odds. The authenticity of his costume and dance is beside the point; the university
certainly is not ridiculing Indians. Thus, we think the protesters are vastly oversensitive.
Let’s compare Chief Illiniwek with Notre Dame’s symbolic Irishman. This
green-clad, clay pipe-smoking caricature who prances up and down the sidelines at
football games could be interpreted as suggesting that all Irishmen are buffoonish, rowdy,
and bibulous(Cahill 22). Does that constitute grounds for protest by Irish-Americans?
Most of us simply regard the leprechaun as a fun-loving free spirit.
“As an alumnus of the University of Illinois class of 1953, I must say the tradition
of Chief Illiniwek must not be allowed to die, nor can we allow it to become the victim of
a crusade by a small group who would, if they could, rewrite the history of our great
nation and its heritage”(Bridwell 22). Chief Illiniwek is not a mascot, but is rather a proud
symbol of a great Native American people, a great state and a great university. According
to Fialkowski, the chief is not “paraded” or displayed, but is revered and honored by all
who witness his presence. For those few minutes that the chief is on the field, he is no
longer a student in a costume but a symbol not only of a great university but of the legacy
of the state that is home to that university. Such a tradition must be kept; the true tragedy
would be its demise (18). David J. Goode adds “In the October 17 issue of the Chicago
Tribune, Gary Reinmuth referred to Chief Illiniwek as the “mascot” for the University of
Illinois. Please inform him that the term “mascot” was incorrectly applied to the chief(12).
Chief Illiniwek is a member of the Marching Illini and only appears with the band. The
Chief is a symbol of the University of Illinois and not a mascot as Mr. Reinmuth suggests.
The University of Illinois senate voted in favor of retiring Chief Illiniwek, the
symbol that has been portrayed as both a racist stereotype and an honor to American
Indian culture in a debate that has preoccupied the campus for a decade. The vote is
advisory, and the school’s Board of Trustees, who have final say on the matter, have
steadfastly refused to change the seventy-two year old symbol. The board’s decision ten
years ago to keep the American Indian chief as a revered symbol of Illinois’ heritage did
not end pressure from groups on and off campus who consider the chief an outdated,
racist caricature(”Revisit” 2). Chief Illiniwek’s image has been emblazoned on apparel and
prominent at half time shows at football and basketball games since its inception as a
school symbol in the 1920’s. Supporters say the chief personifies honor and tradition,
while opponents call it a hurtful stereotype out of place at an institution of higher learning.
Chief Illiniwek, though found to many as a racist stereotype of Native Americans,
shows the pride and spirit of the University of Illinois. Many high schools and colleges
across the country have already changed their Indian mascots and nicknames to other
symbols, but there are a handful of schools, such as the University of Illinois, that will not
budge because Indian mascots do not show racism in any way, shape, or form. Love him
or despise him, no one will ever forget Chief Illiniwek.