Despite the NCAA ban on ‘hostile’ Native American mascots, Chief Illinewek still reigns at U. Illinois

2018-05-24T07:36:53+00:00 May 10th, 2018|

By Jonathan Foiles

Chief Illiniwek, former longtime official mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Fighting Illini, last made an authorized appearance at a UIUC game on February 21, 2007, but more than a decade later, his presence is still felt. Reputable vendors continue to sell Chief products, and derivations of his image appear all over unofficial T-shirts sold at campus stores. While he is no longer authorized to appear on a UIUC court or field, unofficial groups made up of both students and community members arrange regular unauthorized appearances at games and place the caricature on a homecoming float for the annual homecoming parade every October.

One such appearance was rumored to be planned for the January 22nd home basketball game. Anti-Chief activists, including Professor Jay Rosenstein, were on hand to document the Chief’s appearance. When Rosenstein, a noted documentarian whose 1997 film, In Whose Honor?, addressed the Chief controversy, saw some familiar faces stationed outside a restroom, he believed that he had found the Chief’s changing room. Rosenstein had previously documented State Farm Center security guards providing security for the unofficial Chief and was interested to see whether they were again providing support. From that point accounts diverge.

The controversy over Chief Illiniwek reflects the larger cultural conversation over what to do with sports teams that have Native American mascots. But while pro teams like the Cleveland Indians are privately owned, U. Illinois is a public institution of higher learning.

According to a message posted to Facebook by Ivan Dozier Jr., former Chief portrayer and member of the Honor the Chief Society, “After finishing my business at the urinal, I turned to find [Rosenstein], phone still in hand and pointed right at me. I was almost speechless … the man was literally trying to catch me with my pants down.” Rosenstein strongly denies this and told Belt that “university personnel (ushers, security, and U of I police) have been enabling [the Chief] … that’s why I got arrested; I was busting them for their involvement.”

According to anti-Chief activist Eric Schacht, Rosenstein was placed under arrest before the police had settled upon a charge. Dozier, dressed as the Chief, and his supporters were allowed to make their public appearance while Rosenstein waited in handcuffs. The police charged Rosenstein with unauthorized videotaping, which is usually reserved for those filming in restrooms for prurient purposes, and he was kept in jail overnight. State’s Attorney Julia Rietz declined to file charges once she reported to work in the morning, noting, “The criminal-justice system is not the place to gain an advantage for one side or the other on a public debate.”

***

The groundwork for Chief Illiniwek’s quasi-banishment officially began in August 2005 when the NCAA announced that schools with “hostile or abusive” Native American mascots would be banned from hosting postseason games. They listed 18 such schools, the University of Illinois among them. The university appealed the ban in October of the same year, arguing that it violated their autonomy. Less than one month later the NCAA denied the request. In January 2006 the university again appealed and asked for the process to be extended to the end of the academic year. The NCAA declined and informed the university that they would entertain no further appeals. The Chief had to go.

Ivan Dozier Sr., right, puts a headdress on a student preparing to portray Chief Illiniwek during half time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign basketball game against the University of Minnesota on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The university produced a maudlin video to appear before his final dance, reassuring the student body that they had nothing to do with getting rid of their beloved mascot. Since then UIUC has done the bare minimum necessary to maintain compliance. As part of the NCAA ruling they were allowed to retain the names “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” as they supposedly refer not to Native Americans but to the indomitable spirit of the school’s athletic department. While it is true that the nickname “Fighting Illini” predates the Chief, the school used Native American imagery in the “noble warrior” style to represent the university’s athletic teams from the very beginning, as these images from the early 1920s illustrate. It seems highly unlikely that the name “Fighting Illini” will ever refer to anything but Native Americans in the minds of students, alumni, and the general public. The university has never replaced the mascot. The marching band continues to play “Three in One,” the Chief’s theme, at halftimes. It’s easy enough to fill in the Chief-sized gap, and many do; during performances of “Three in One,” the crowd often folds their arms together in mock solemnity in the same places the Chief used to, and there’s a pretty strong chance you can still see an unofficial Chief at games. He is banned from taking his customary position in the middle of the field or court, but that’s the only noticeable change. As Rosenstein points out, the university’s lack of action to date plays a role in this: “You have either the Chief or nothing, so many students would like to have the Chief instead of nothing.”

“The trustees themselves and the powerful/wealthy community members are all deeply committed to the Chief culture.”

The controversy over Chief Illiniwek reflects the larger cultural conversation over what to do with sports teams that have Native American mascots. The Cleveland Indians are begrudgingly retiring their Chief Wahoo after this MLB season, and the NFL team from Washington is fiercely resistant to increasing calls to retire their racial slur of a name along with their logo. But while these teams are privately owned, the University of Illinois is a public institution of higher learning and, as such, is funded by taxpayers. 

The University of Illinois is in somewhat of a precarious situation financially due in large part to Illinois’ lack of a budget for two years. From July 1, 2015, to August 31, 2017, Illinois lacked a complete budget due to a stalemate between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who sought to implement his “Turnaround Agenda” — a series of Scott Walker-esque blows to organized labor and safety net programs — and Democratic Speaker of the Illinois House Mike Madigan. The crisis caused the University of Illinois system to lay off employees and raise tuition rates, and many who could go out of state for school did. The university has been skittish since and is deeply wary of offending tuition-paying students and donors. At the same time, Rosenstein points out that donations to the school are at an all-time high.

Schacht notes that social media abounds with voices threatening to pull funding if the university fully bans the Chief, but he suggests a different reason for the university’s lack of action: “The trustees themselves and the powerful/wealthy community members are all deeply committed to the Chief culture.” Rosenstein agrees: “I believe that every trustee who has roots either at UIUC or lives in or near Champaign supports the Chief wholeheartedly. The other trustees who have no real connection to UIUC probably don’t care, or would like to see it gone for practical business and PR reasons.” Of the eight trustees listed on the university’s website, seven of them are alumni of the University of Illinois system. In Rosenstein’s In Whose Honor?, then-member of the Board of Trustees Susan Gravenhorst called the Chief “a focal point. He draws the community, the student body, the faculty together … I can’t imagine that he could be perceived as a racial insult or as a slur on the Native American community. To me, it’s a compliment.” Not much seems to have changed. (The current Board of Trustees declined to comment).

Despite the university’s lack of resolve on the matter, supporters of the Chief remain unsatisfied. “The university finds itself in a difficult situation, because they have spent 10 years caving to protesters who lash out with violence and criminal activity, while ignoring the loyal supporters who still passionately support the Chief,” says Dozier. “If the university is to proceed, they need to acknowledge BOTH sides of the Chief Illiniwek debate, both in official statements and in the classroom.”

When asked to provide specific examples of violence, Dozier cites an anti-Chief activist destroying $200 worth of Chief posters and claims that three Honor the Chief Society members were injured in last year’s homecoming parade protests. No charges were filed in the former incident, and police denied any reports of violence at the parade.

Dozier’s comments speak to a wider sense within the pro-Chief community that the conversation is driven by professors and activists rather than the wider public. When asked how he would respond to those who find the Chief offensive to Native Americans, he says, “Critics that say ‘the Chief is offensive to American Indians’ are either ignorant or purposefully misleading” and claims that the Honor the Chief Society includes Native Americans on its board. The members of the Honor the Chief Society are not identified on their website, but presumably Dozier is including himself as he identifies as half-Cherokee. Other Native Americans feel differently. Charlene Teters, a member of the Spokane tribe, first encountered the Chief when she attended a basketball game with her two children when she was a graduate student. She shares their reaction to the Chief in In Whose Honor?: “My daughter was trying to become invisible, and my son tried to laugh … my children know who they are, they’re not confused about how they are, they’re Indians. They have been taught to respect the person who has earned the right to wear an eagle feather headdress. What I saw in my children was a blow to their self-esteem.”

***

The 2005 NCAA decision may sound like a definitive step taken in the direction of removing Native American mascots from institutions of higher learning, but in actuality the resolution was rather toothless. They banned appearances of mascots or nicknames deemed derogatory to Native Americans during the postseason and also banned those schools from hosting postseason games, but that was the extent of it. Additionally, this only impacted sports which have a NCAA-organized postseason; football was excluded, for example, since college football postseason rankings are determined by bowl games. The NCAA did not ban Native American mascots entirely as they did not believe they had that authority. As then-chair of the NCAA executive committee Walter Harrison told ESPN at the time, “What each institution decides to do is really its own business … what we are trying to say is that we find these mascots to be unacceptable for NCAA championship competition.”

Since the NCAA has essentially washed their hands of the issue and considers the matter closed, and the University of Illinois turns a blind eye to the regular appearance of an unofficial Chief, the burden of pushing for decisive action falls upon anti-Chief protestors.

The NCAA also allowed for schools to work with the tribes represented to obtain clearance for their mascots and, if that was granted in any way, the NCAA gave them the go-ahead. The Florida State Seminoles were the most noteworthy team to obtain the blessing of the tribe they claim to represent, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Then-Chief James Billie told The New York Times in 2013, “We Seminoles embrace that mascot … they honor us.” Florida State in return provides scholarships and tuition reductions to members of the tribe and have altered aspects of the mascot when the tribe voiced objections. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, however, is almost five times larger than the Florida tribe and has not taken a stand for or against Florida State’s usage of the name. One member of the Oklahoma tribe, David Narcomey, has been outspoken in his disapproval, telling The Oklahoman that the halftime appearances by Chief Osceola are a “minstrel show.” The resolution also only applied to schools whose mascots had living descendants; San Diego State was allowed to maintain their Aztec Warrior mascot who engaged in mock human sacrifice as part of his repertoire because there are no persons living who can claim direct Aztec heritage.

A glance at the other 17 schools on the NCAA “hostile and abusive” list reveals a mixed bag of responses. Five schools, Florida State among them, were granted waivers from the NCAA after the tribes depicted gave the schools their approval to continue. Seven schools did change their mascots to something wholly unrelated to Native Americans. Out of the other 5 schools, two retained their Native American–related name, but retired their mascot. Two others modified their mascot, so the Carthage College Redmen became the Carthage College Red Men (their mascot a man in red with flaming hair) and the Southeastern Oklahoma State Savages became the Savage Storm. And the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux became embroiled in a controversy that included threatening to sue the NCAA and the North Dakota Senate passing a bill to mandate that the school keep the name, only to withdraw it when the NCAA threatened sanctions. The state Board of Higher Education finally retired the name and logo on June 14, 2012, and prohibited the school from selecting a new mascot until 2015. When the probationary period was over, North Dakota finally became the Fighting Hawks, although the name has yet to fully catch on and fans continue to wear their Fighting Sioux memorabilia to games.

(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The NCAA deemed the responses of the combined 18 teams to be appropriate. When asked if they considered the University of Illinois to be compliant given the frequent appearances of the unofficial Chief, NCAA spokesperson Gail Dent responded, “Currently, there are no schools on the NCAA’s mascot list (from year’s past),” indicating that the NCAA has relegated the matter to the history books. She directed all further enquiries to the various schools in question.

Since the NCAA has essentially washed their hands of the issue and considers the matter closed, and the University of Illinois turns a blind eye to the regular appearance of an unofficial Chief, the burden of pushing for decisive action falls upon anti-Chief protestors.

Schacht, whose organization is called Fighting Illinois’ Racist Mascots (FIRM), has a list of suggestions ready for the university: “Costumes representing a people’s culture should be banned from campus events. Native American/Chief imagery should be banned on campus. Freedom of Speech does not trump the right of students to have their academic experience be free from hostile and abusive imagery and behavior.” Schacht also references previous campus controversies over stereotypical costumes and notes the swift response issued from the university in those cases: “When there has been a confederate flag on campus buildings, there is a swift response. When four students dressed as Jamaican bobsledders in blackface there was a swift response and implementation of the student code. Yet when a white guy dresses up in religious Native American regalia and redface, there is no action at all — if anything, he is protected.” Few, however, appear to be listening to him. FIRM’s Facebook group page has 311 likes; the Honor the Chief Society’s page has 1,855.

***

The Chief has never went away, but the controversy seems to have reached a fever pitch this academic year. Anti-Chief protesters interrupted the homecoming parade to protest an unofficial Chief appearance on one of the floats, and then the aforementioned event with Rosenstein made national headlines. Rosenstein also believes that the presidential election has played a role in a spike in anti-Chief activism: “The student government this year — since Trump — took many very active stances against the Chief, more aggressively than ever before.”

The same could presumably be said about pro-Chief activists as well. Chancellor Robert J. Jones has convened a series of open forums called the Chancellor’s Critical Conversations, and the first two sessions are dedicated to Native American imagery and free speech. The first such event took place April 10th, but there have been no reports on the discussion due to the university banning the media and not allowing the discussion to be recorded or filmed. Belt reached out to the chancellor’s office for comment but they did not respond. The university invited representatives of both the pro- and anti-Chief movements to present their cases and then broke the attendees into small groups for discussion. Attendance was capped at just 200 people. According to Schacht, “It was invitation only … and no UIUC past/present student/staff/faculty of Native American heritage was given a voice.” It’s rather curious that Jones felt it necessary to convene such conversations in the first place; he has stated on the record that the Chief will never return, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year, “You make sure your readers understand this. Put it in bold or italics if you want. Absolutely not: the Chief is not coming back.”

If the Chief is not coming back, why bother to convene secret conversations with a select group of individuals rather than taking decisive action to settle the debate once and for all? The “critical conversations” seem to be the latest step taken by the university to signal to both sides of the Chief debate that they’d like to move forward without doing anything to actually make that happen. When Chancellor Jones began his tenure last year, he denied hopes that the Chief will return while his spokesperson told the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini, that selecting a new mascot was not a priority for him; he would rather focus on addressing the university’s precarious financial state and also work to increase diversity on campus. It would seem that replacing the Chief altogether would be a prominent step in the direction of promoting campus diversity, but it’s clear the administration does not see it that way.

***

The Chief is not the only slight to a minority population that the university has tolerated, if not condoned. Steven Salaita was offered a tenure track position in the American Indian studies department in October 2013 and accepted, tendering his resignation at Virginia Tech and planning to begin in fall 2014. As is common in such hires, then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise would present Salaita’s position for approval by the Board of Trustees, which is almost always a formality. Over summer 2014, as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians escalated, Salaita criticized Israel in a number of tweets, such as, “If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza” and “The logic of ‘antisemitism’ deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath ‘antisemitic.’” Salaita’s tweets were first publicized in a Daily Caller article. Following the publication of the tweets, angry letters began pouring into Chancellor Wise’s office denouncing the hire. The Champaign News-Gazette published all 276 pages of messages, and many of them revealed donors threatening to revoke their support if the appointment went through. Wise was lobbied not only by individual donors but by the fundraising arm of the university as later documents showed. The university administration still publicly acted like they supported Salaita; they released a statement supporting his academic freedom in the immediate aftermath of the outrage and behind the scenes they continued to work on mundane concerns such as approving his moving expenses and determining his technology needs. During all this time Wise was taking meetings with donors, alums, and PR types, but notably was not consulting anyone involved in academics. Wise effectively dehired Salaita August 2nd, 2014, refusing to submit his name to the Board of Trustees for final approval.

The reaction from the academic community was swift. More than 3,000 professors stated that they would boycott the university until Salaita was reinstated. Over three dozen academic engagements, including appearances by Cornel West and Anita Hill, were cancelled after the speakers withdrew. The American Association of University Professors officially censured the university. Salaita sued the university, and in 2015 he was awarded $875,000 and agreed to give up his claim to the professorship. Wise was pressured to resign that same year due in large part to the fact that she used a private email address during the Salaita controversy and urged others to do the same to skirt FOIA requirements. The Salaita episode also had a significant impact upon the Department of American Indian Studies; two years after Salaita was fired, the department had only two core faculty members after losing five to other universities or other departments within the University of Illinois.

***

What does Salaita have to do with the Chief? Because the Salaita case took place over a much shorter length of time, it is much easier to trace the actions of the university’s administration. The Salaita episode, alongside the enduring Chief controversy, reveal an administration deeply wary of making the slightest move that could offend their donor base. The university would rather deeply damage their academic reputation upon a national stage than face the possible loss of donor funds. Would Salaita’s position have been terminated if he had been appointed to a higher prestige position? No one could answer definitively, of course, but both the continuing presence of the Chief and the total disrespect afforded to Salaita and the American Indian Studies department as a whole suggest that their concerns play a minor role within administrative decision-making. Salaita has since left academia. In 2017, he announced on Facebook that “despite applying to positions on four continents, I was unable to find an academic job, so I no longer count myself among the professoriate.”

Rosenstein, for his part, has continued to press the university to take decisive action to end the Chief once and for all. He regularly updates the end text of In Whose Honor?, and he feels energized by the very public anti-Chief stance of the latest chancellor and the renewed sense of energy campus protesters feel in the Trump era. As for his own activism, he told Belt, “I am using my membership in the academic senate as the avenue for much of my activism right now. I have a resolution going out to the senate executive committee today that asks the chancellor to enforce the ‘no protest’ policy at basketball and football games by no longer allowing an unauthorized Chief to appear at games … I will continue to push several more such resolutions next year.”

Rosenstein plans to keep advocating for change, but it remains to be seen whether or not the university will listen.

 

Banner photo: Student Omar Cruz stands inside the State Farm Center as he portrays Chief Illiniwek during half time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign basketball game against the University of Minnesota on Feb. 28, 2016, in Champaign, Ill. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS) 

Jonathan Foiles is a writer and mental health professional based in Chicago. He writes a blog for Psychology Today and has previously written for Slate. He can be reached at jonathan.foiles@gmail.com.

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