his is a second report from Illinois , USA on the "Chief Illiniwek" mascot at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The first article by Tulsi Dharmarajan offered an overview of this issue and ended with the Board of Trustee vote on June 17, 2004 where Trustee Francis Caroll (the only African-American on the Board of Trustees) allied with the pro-"Chief" Trustee Marjorie Sodemann to introduce a "consensus" resolution. Since then, much has happened that lends insight into the inner workings of Illinois state politics.
Since the "consensus resolution" was approved on June 17, 2004 , the board also passed a "heritage" resolution on September 9, 2004 to "preserve and celebrate the state's American Indian heritage". Both the consensus decree and heritage resolution have proven to be stalling tactics by the BOT in their hopes the struggle to retire "Chief Illiniwek" will fetter. However, more resistance to the mascot is mounting from a wider segment of the student and faculty population. In particular, "students of color" (a term acknowledging the historic legacy of U.S. apartheid where "colored" people were segregated from "whites" at public institutions and positions of power) have begun to mobilize around the "Chief" mascot.
On March 14, 2004, two days before a student referendum on the "Chief" was placed on the student elections ballot, a multicultural group of students gathered at La Casa Cultural Latina (a cultural house for "Latina/Latino" students) to discuss the student referendum and possible actions that could be planned against the mascot. Many students described how the use of the American Indian mascot created a hostile campus climate. The general feeling was that the "Chief" emboldened conservative white students and community members to express their dominance over all other non-white populations. In addition, the student referendum itself, where students were to vote to either support or reject the use of the mascot, was characterized as a wedge issue where pro-"Chief" fraternities and sororities could not only express their desire to maintain the use of the mascot at UIUC, but also mobilize a larger conservative voter turnout to elect their politically conservative candidates for both the student senate and the student representative to the Board of Trustees.
The meeting at La Casa ended with the formation of a new anti-"Chief" group called " I Resist " (The "I" standing for Illinois). The first action for I Resist transpired on March 17, 2004 (the day after the election results were announced), when students protested in front of businesses profiting from the sale of "Chief" and "Fighting Illini" merchandise. Students understood the protest against commodifying Native imagery as an important first step to display their opposition to the dominant forces that profit from negatively stereotyping American-Indians. Targeting these places of businesses was a conscious attempt to widen the issue beyond the realm of "identity politics" and make a direct link with the economic forces that drive racialized representations.
On June 15, 2004, I Resist held a second protest in front of stores displaying mascot imagery. Already we began to notice our impact, for stores were beginning to reduce and remove their "Chief" merchandise from their storefronts. The next day, members of I Resist and the Progressive Resource/Action Cooperative drove to Chicago to support a protest against the Board of Trustees organized by the Native American Educational Services (NAES) College. Then on June 17, members of this multicultural coalition engaged in acts of civil disobedience inside the Board of Trustees meeting where our former ally, Trustee Francis Carol collaborated with pro-"Chief" Trustee Marjorie Sodemann to pass a bogus "consensus resolution". The civil disobedience came in the form of disrupting the meeting by orchestrated chants, shouts, displaying anti-"Chief" signs and banners, and by holding our fist high in the air as the Board attempted to ignore our presence.
Since the passage of the "consensus resolution", the BOT has made no effort to contact any anti-"Chief" organizations and it remains a mystery with whom the Board is intending to make a consensus or if they comprehend the meaning of this term. Many have speculated that the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who appoints new members of the BOT, has instructed them to stall until the next statewide election is over. Blagojevich is an unpopular Democratic governor who is afraid that a mobilized pro-"Chief" constituency will vote for a Republican candidate in 2006. In either case, the state Republicans have attempted to energize their conservative base by making "Chief Illiniwek" an item on the party platform. Additionally, on March 25, Blagojevich nominated David V. Dorris for a vacant BOT position. Dorris, a UIUC alumnus, coincidentally donated over $83,000 to past Blagojevich campaigns and refuses to take a stance on the mascot - a move I Resist considers cowardly.
Although the BOT attempts to silence dissent to the "Chief," forces uncontrollable by the Board continue to raise national awareness on this issue. On August 5, 2004 the Higher Learning Commission - North Central Association of Colleges and Schools cited the Board of Trustees as being negligent on their lack of progress in resolving the problems with the mascot, stating ".the real issue here is a troubling failure of enlightened leadership and shared governance by the board of a major world-class research university."
On September 27, 2004 , it was announced that UIUC experienced a significant drop in "minority" students . Former director of La Casa Cultural Latina, Giraldo Rosales, blamed the "Chief Illiniwek controversy" for the decrease. Also, in November 2004, the NCAA asked UIUC to explain why it was necessary to use American Indian imagery. This self-evaluation is due May 1, 2005 . In addition, on March 15, 2005 the Illinois Native American Bar Association filed a lawsuit in the Cook County Circuit Court against the BOT stating the mascot perpetuates racial stereotypes.
Ironically, nothing has brought as much nationwide attention to the mascot issue like the success of the UIUC basketball team. For the first time in the school's history, the team reached the national college championship on April 4, 2005 . With this success, the school was forced to explain why the mascot has been banned from traveling with the team. Nationally syndicated articles kept circulating during "March Madness," embarrassing the team and the school because of the obviously racist nature of the "Chief" mascot.
The national attention on UIUC requires an analysis of the local community from where this mascot was created. Champaign-Urbana is a twin city with approximately 180,000 residents. Over 40,000 of these residents are students enrolled at UIUC. The local economy is based on servicing the students and employees of the university. Outside the city are acres and acres of cornfields and small homogenous towns with residents primarily of European decent. For these small towns, Champaign-Urbana is a Mecca of Wal-Marts, fast food, and entertainment. UIUC's sport teams draw large crowds from as far away as Chicago and St. Louis . The locals love their "Chief". Many display large stickers of the mascot on their car doors with bumper stickers proclaiming "The Chief, yesterday, today, forever" - an apparent reference to the 1963 proclamation by the openly racist Alabama Governor, George Wallace who stated " segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever . "
The legacy of segregation in Champaign was exposed in 1996 after African-American parents complained to the Office of Civil Rights about segregationist practices by the Champaign school district. These parents won a federal consent decree in 2002 acknowledging the district's racist practices when African-American students, who comprise of 30% of the district's total population, accounted for 80 percent of the students in special education and 80 percent of all disciplinary actions.
Also in 1996, a local American Indian 3 rd grade student started experiencing harassment from peers and teachers simply for attempting to maintain a positive indigenous identity. In 1999, the student was forced to leave the Champaign school district because of open discrimination and growing complaints about his anti-"Chief" stance.
The local community's ability to intimidate does not stop there. Nancy Cantor, the former Chancellor for UIUC was forced to leave Champaign-Urbana in the spring of 2004 because her anti-"Chief" position was very unpopular with the local community. Cantor was continually and publically harassed as her family ate at local restaurants and shopped in community grocery stores. Currently UIUC is searching for a new chancellor and its recently appointed president, with the ironic name of B. Joe White, refuses to take a firm stance on the mascot issue.
The "Chief" fervor experienced outside the stadium is miniscule compared to what is experienced from the stadium seats. In his February 24, 2005 sports article, Nick Collins wrote , "...the Assembly Hall halftime show -- it wasn't really a show so much as a cult ritual - [it] freaked me out pretty thoroughly."
It is under these circumstances that students of color at UIUC are attempting to overcome our differences and form alliances with faculty and community members to pressure action on this issue. For this reason, members of I Resist have chosen to bypass corporate media and report our own stories and interviews via our website . In addition, I Resist continues to work toward forming coalitions with other anti-"Chief" groups to spearhead a boycott of local bookstores profiting from the commodification of American-Indian imagery.
At its surface, this UIUC mascot is tied to issues of representation and identity. Yet the history of this struggle reveals how the forces working to maintain the "Chief" are also entrenched in the same neo-conservative ideologies that embolden the rhetoric of U.S. imperialism and hegemony. The mascot symbolizes a continuing attempt to subordinate historically oppressed groups to entertain a sadistic audience fearful of its slipping grasp of local and international power. Resistance to it, therefore, is an action symbolic of the human spirit to struggle toward justice and liberation.
Photo Courtesy of www.IResist.org