Older than any of the students currently debating the issue, the controversy surrounding Chief Illiniwek continues to dance up a storm at the University of Illinois. Three decades after the school should have retired the Chief, and six years after U of I trustees actually did, students voted this week on a nonbinding referendum asking whether the Chief should represent the school.
Results of that vote are being withheld until a judiciary board rules on the legality of an earlier question involving the Chief, but the outcome doesn't matter. Administrators have said the Chief isn't coming back, but the university hasn't found a way to stop the Chief and his controversy from hanging around.
"People are going to cling to it as long as there is nothing in its place," says recent U of I graduate Thomas Ferrarell, a Hawthorn Woods native and Lake Zurich High School graduate who led an attempt to find a new mascot and symbol while he was on campus in Champaign-Urbana. "Simply retiring it (the Chief and his halftime dance) isn't an effective solution. We need to move on."
Those are fighting words to supporters of the Chief. The Campus Spirit Revival page on Facebook urging the selection of a new mascot draws 676 likes, about a third as many supporters as the Stop Campus Spirit Revival page that sprang up in support of keeping the Chief.
The original Chief was born in 1926 when Lester Leutwiler, a Boy Scout who made his own Indian costume and tom-tom, concocted a dance as his way to honor our heritage. Supporters say the modern dancers, wearing buckskins, face paint and a headdress, remained an emotional and uplifting way to honor Native Americans.
Critics argued that having a white kid don "Indian garb" and prance around the court in his bare feet and war paint is insensitive, regardless of the intent.
Many of us (including officials from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the American Psychological Association and the executive committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribe) side with the critics. But it doesn't matter. Noble or an insult, the Chief fosters anger, resentment, accusations and controversy, and those attributes aren't what a symbol should bring to a school the caliber of Illinois.
"I actually went to zero games my whole time at U of I because there was such a Chief," says Suey Park, 22, who graduated from Lake Zurich High School and Illinois and now is doing graduate work in student affairs and higher education with an emphasis on diversity, equity and culture at Miami University in Ohio.
In an open letter to the University of Illinois, Park and U of I grad student Thaddeus Andracki argue, "Allowing students to vote 'yes' or 'no' on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion, but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students."
It should be noted that Park's current school got rid of its dancing Indian mascot in 1972 and converted from the Miami Redskins to the Miami Redhawks in 1997. Likewise, Ferrarell started his college career at Marquette University, which canned its Willie Wampum mascot in 1971, dropped the Warriors nickname in 1994 and now uses Golden Eagles.
"I had no idea they were ever the Warriors until I got to Illinois and starting researching mascots," says Ferrarell, who was president of the Native American & Indigenous Student Organization while on campus. That group issued a statement that "denounces all continued use of the Chief logo and its likeness, and refuses any nostalgic remembrance of the Chief in the form of paraphernalia, apparel, decoration, or performances during sporting events."
The Chief still shows up on T-shirts (although a St. Patrick's version featuring a Chief-like character sporting a headdress made of beer bottles recently was removed from the market), and hangs over sporting events where students still chant for the Chief when they hear the music that accompanied his performances.
The suburbs have plenty of examples of schools that have moved on after changing beloved but offensive nicknames. Naperville Central High School converted from Redskins to Redhawks in 1993, and Huntley High School switched from Redskins to Red Raiders in 2002. Last fall, Aptakisic Junior High in Buffalo Grove switched from Indians to Eagles.
On the Facebook page of new images for Illinois, suggestions include Abe Lincoln-inspired homages such as the Railsplitters and the Fighting Abes, World War I doughboys, several of the legendary Kracken sea monsters, a fire chief, a chef, a corn-based mascot along the lines of Kernels, and tributes to the white-tailed deer (state animal), bluegill (state fish) and white oak (state tree). As of now, there are no nominees for the Big Bluestems (state prairie grass) or Tully Monsters (state fossil).
Indian mascots still are easy to find, from the outlandishly cartoon Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians to the NFL's Washington Redskins to the chief profile used by our Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.
Using Native Americans as sports mascots can be tricky. Atlanta's baseball team still keeps its Braves name, but got rid of its Chief Nok-A-Homa mascot in 1986.
Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe supported the Florida State Seminoles when the school won a waiver from the NCAA to keep its nickname and mascot. The Spirit Lake Tribe is suing the NCAA to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname at the University of North Dakota.
Most of the hundreds of colleges and high schools that have abandoned Native American mascots and nicknames feature informative history pages on their website explaining the move. The U of I needs to move the Chief onto one of those history pages and away from its modern image.
"Let's move the school forward," Ferrarell says.
"I don't think it is what defines our school," adds Park, who says she honed her interest and expertise in critical thinking and social justice at the university she loves. "If I didn't have such strong feelings about U of I, I wouldn't care so much about making the school better. Those were the defining years of my life, and I attribute that to the U of I."