Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last dance

Tonight marks the end of an era at the University of Illinois. Chief Illiniwek, the symbol of the U of I athletic program since 1926, will
retire after his halftime performance during tonight's basketball game against Michigan.

The decision to retire the Chief came about as a result of the NCAA's decision to bar the U of I from hosting postseason events as long as they used him as their mascot. As one would expect, the university's decision to retire Chief Illiniwek was met with much resistance from alumni and fans throughout the state. Many Illinoisians are understandably upset at the loss of one of the state university's most venerable symbols.

Yet this is one Native American sports symbol whose time has passed. Unlike the situation at Florida State, whose use of the Seminole has been approved by the Seminole Nation, Chief Illiniwek received no such sanction from the Illini tribe. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to find an Illini these days; white settlers chased the Illini across the Mississippi River in the years after the American Revolution. The Peoria Indians of northeastern Oklahoma, the closest descendants of the old Illini Nation, issued a statement in 2000 expressing their disapproval of the use of the Chief mascot:

The newly passed resolution states that "the image portrayed by Chief Illiniwek does not accurately represent or honor the
heritage of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and is a degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all
American Indian people." The Resolution further states that "the Peoria Tribe of Indians does not endorse or sanction the
characterization of Chief Illiniwek as mascot for the University of Illinois" and also, "requests the leadership of the University
of Illinois to recognize the demeaning nature of the characterization of Chief Illiniwek, and cease the use of this mascot."
In an interview with L. Brian Stauffer, Freelance writer and Photographer, Chief Ron Froman said, "I don't know what the
origination was, or what the reason was for the university to create Chief Illiniwek. I don't think it was to honor us, because,
hell, they ran our (butts) out of Illinois."

Neither the Peoria Indians nor the NCAA have any objection to the University of Illinois continuing to use the name Fighting Illini for their sports teams. The problem with Chief Illiniwek was, among other things, that he did not represent any of the traditions of the Illini tribe that he was supposed to symbolize. The Chief's dress and dance were derived from the Sioux, a tribe unrelated to the Illini, and allegedly came about in part out of research done by Cub Scouts. No Native American has ever portrayed Chief Illiniwek during his 81 year history.

Although I follow Illini sports, and will miss seeing the Chief as a part of the game festivities, it is past time for Chief Illiniwek to retire. Some traditions are worth preserving, and some are relics of a bygone time where whites were less considerate of those not like us. This is one of those traditions we need to let go of. Let the Chief dance off into the sunset.