Perception, not intent, relegates Chief Illiniwek to history

In Sunday's column, I angered a number of readers by adding new voices to a 30-year-old suggestion that the University of Illinois needs to find a replacement for the Chief. The university retired the popular, headress-wearing dancer in 2007 amid complaints of racism, but the Chief debate still rages.

Some fans who love and defend the Chief wrote thoughtful emails arguing that my column should be retracted. But I am not some sort of person who gives something and then takes it back.

There is nothing inherently racist in that last sentence, but I understand how some of you could be offended by it. We all have different perceptions, and sometimes we don't comprehend how others, especially those with minority opinions, could see things differently.

I was guilty of using an offensive word while writing my column about the Chief. Daily Herald Managing Editor Jim Baumann, one of several graduates of the University of Illinois among my bosses, saved me. I innocently wrote that the president of the Native American & Indigenous Student Organization on campus "spearheaded" the push to have students vote on a replacement for the Chief. It never occurred to me that anyone would see that word as a racist stereotype about Indians on the warpath. But Jim alerted me to that possibility and suggested we change it. I am grateful we did, as I don't want to offend.

Neither do most supporters of the Chief. The Chief began in 1926 when Boy Scout Lester Leutwiler made his own Indian costume and tom-tom and concocted a dance as his way to honor our first residents. Supporters of the Chief still see him as a noble tribute. The Chief was never some mascot out to get laughs by clowning around with Wisconsin's Bucky Badger or Brutus the Buckeye from Ohio State. His performances almost came across as sacred religious rituals, which also have no place at a public university's halftime show.

Several readers dismissed my arguments, noting I graduated from rival Northwestern, which, in spite of a student vote in 1972 in support of the Purple Haze, went from the Fighting Methodists to the Wildcats. I've been to games in Champaign, watched the Chief perform a dozen times, and understand how the moving and emotional Chief performances bring tears to the eyes and warm the hearts.

But the American Psychological Association says the Chief reminds American Indians of "the limited ways in which others see them," "affirms stereotypes" and actually "undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities." Certainly there are more blatant and offensive examples of this in colleges and professional sports, but our state university's Chief made the NCAA's list of "hostile or abusive" mascots/symbols/performances.

I empathize with Chief fans about how the image of a beloved character can sour. As a kid, I wanted to be like Little Black Sambo. My boyhood literary hero outsmarted tigers, was quick on his feet and made a delicious breakfast to boot. As an adult, I still find the slave Jim from "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" one of the most admirable characters in literature. But I don't want our state school to honor either of those noble characters with halftime performances by students dressed like them.

The Chief should be relegated to history even if all the Chief supporters are right about the nobility of the Chief and the way he has been "misunderstood" by the "politically correct" NCAA, the psychologists, me and many others. The bottom line is that the Chief no longer means what supporters want him to mean.

That phenomenon is the same reason most columnists no longer use variations of the word niggardly. Having nothing to do with race, the word derived from a Scandinavian word meaning stingy and was perfectly acceptable for centuries. But I could never use it now in a sentence about how President Obama is very stingy when it comes to doling out praise to Tea Party Republicans. I'd have truth on my side, but that wouldn't change the reality that the word would be misunderstood and offend people. Having lost its true meaning, the word no longer delivers the message it originally conveyed and should be retired.

Same with the Chief. Give him his spot in history and let people understand him for what he was. Letting him stew in controversy for years diminishes the legend of the Chief. And who wants that?

U of I can't move on if Chief still lightning rod

This suggestion of an eagle earned the most “likes” on a Facebook page dedicated to finding a replacement for the retired and controversial Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois Courtesy of Campus Spirit Revival
Looking a bit like the retired Chief Illiniwek, this potential University of Illinois mascot serves as the chief of a pride of lions. Courtesy of Campus Spirit Revival
In an effort to find a replacement for Chief Illiniwek, some students opt for incorporating Abe Lincoln into a new symbol for the University of Illinois. Courtesy of Campus Spirit Revival
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