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June 05, 2004

Mascot Report: The Continuing Saga Of Chief Illiniwek

FROM CHICAGO’S US CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS comes more fuel for the fire that has been the spiraling debate over the University of Illinois’ mascot: Chief Illiniwek.

The Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional this week U of I’s attempts to muzzle a “negative recruiting” campaign because it might violate NCAA recruiting rules.

The judge ruled that students' and professors' free-speech rights were violated when the school ordered them not to talk to potential student-athletes about Chief Illiniwek.

The lawsuit was initiated in 2001 when professor Stephen Kaufman announced plans to engage in “negative recruiting” by telling prospective student-athletes that Chief Illiniwek is a racist mascot and promotes racial stereotypes on campus.


That kind of “recruiting” would certainly give pause to impressionable high school prospects.

The university countered by decreeing that faculty members or students might violate NCAA recruiting rules (by contacting potential athletes) and that they should clear any contact through the Illini's athletic office.

The anti-Illiniwek faction took issue with the administration’s decree, engaged the services of the ACLU, sued, and won in US District Court. The ruling admonished the university for using NCAA rules “to check the 1st Amendment rights of its students and faculty at the door to the campus.”

Who is this Chief Illiniwek? He is a student—a white, non native American student—who performs a three-minute dance at football and basketball games. With facial colors of Illini orange and blue, a magnificent feathered war bonnet, and soft buckskin, the faux chief commands attention.

Approximately half of the Illini faithful think that the Chief looks as authentic, noble and proud as can be. Others, however, see the Chief and his routine as degrading, offensive and humiliating.

Opponents of continued use of Chief Illiniwek are nothing if not persistent. The movement gained momentum in the 80’s, when Charlene Teters, a native American student, held up signs at football games that read “American Indians are people, not mascots.” At that time a campus sorority was still holding a Miss Illini Squaw contest.

"The chief is symptomatic of how American society co-opts the Indian identity and simultaneously romanticizes and denigrates that identity," said Illini student John McKinn, a Maricopa. "Pseudo-spiritual dances are passed off as authentic. It just dismisses who we are."

Even the great, great granddaughter of Sitting Bull has entered the fray. Genevieve Tenoso, an Illini anthropology major, said, "I wanted to ignore it. But I looked up on the wall at a fan shop and saw the chief head on a seat cushion. Then I saw a chief bathroom scale and a little two-piece toddler set that said, `Love Me and Love My Chief.' I was pulled in."

The tone of the debate became more pronounced earlier this year when Illini board trustee Frances Carroll put forth a proposal to have Chief Illiniwek "honorably retired." The proposal has divided the university along political and racial lines. Carroll is not willing to wait much longer to jettison the chief, "We're in a 21st century global society. We have to be sensitive to images, thoughts, behaviors that affect other cultures — cultures that we now know we were misinformed about."

To be sure, the chief's existence belies the dramatic national move away from nicknames and mascots referring to American Indians. In 1970, more than 3000 American athletic programs referred to American Indians in nicknames, logos or mascots, according to the Morning Star Institute, a Native American organization. Today, there are fewer than 1100.

However, there is a risk involved in mandating the elimination of Native American nicknames based on the somewhat subjective premise that certain parties are “offended.” That same standard—someone being offended—could conceivably be applied to nicknames that refer to other groups who might be offended.

For example, there could be some Irish American groups offended by the use of “The Irish” by Notre Dame. Greek-Americans might have a problem with Michigan State’s use of the Spartans. Or Scandinavian-Americans upset with Portland State’s usage of Vikings. Or Scot-Americans opposed to the Fighting Scots of Monmouth College. Or Christian groups being opposed to the Blue Devils of Duke and the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State.

It could go on and on.

(this 697 word excerpt—with accompanying commentary—was drawn from a 468 word Associated Press article of 6-2-04, with background from a 2064 word article in the 12-16-03 New York Times)