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he University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is home to a mascot that is a complete mockery of Native American culture and beliefs. The mascot, called Chief Illiniwek, performs prominently at intermission periods during UIUC basketball and football games in fake Native American regalia to a dance that exaggerates American Indian ritual dancing to the point of caricature. The fact that the mascot is historically a white male only makes obvious the connection to red-face minstrelsy - a practice of 19th century American theater used to dehumanize people of color.


In 1926, at the same time as the Klu Klux Klan was a registered student organization at UIUC, Chief Illiniwek was conceived by assistant band director Ray Dvorak and Lester Leutwiler, a student with a "keen interest in native lore" [1], who was picked to dance at half-time in an Illinois-Pennsylvania football game in Philadelphia.


Individuals like Charlene Teters of the Spokane Tribe in the late 1980s spearheaded the movement against the Chief alongside countless students, professors, departments, campus-based organizations and national Native American groups. The first sign of dissent was an essay titled "Challenge to the Chief" in the school yearbook the Illio published in 1975.


The UI Board of Trustees (BOT) took no action on the issue until October 1990, when they voted to make Chief Illiniwek the official university symbol. A few months later in March 1991, the Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution (14-5) declaring Chief Illiniwek discriminatory and called for its elimination and an apology to American Indians. The same year the 800 full time faculty voted nearly unanimously on a resolution to end the disgraceful half-time façade.


Nothing came of the 1991 SGA vote or the faculty resolution and in February 2000, the Board announced the renewal of dialogue on the mascot issue. After much dialog the Board of Trustees voted 10 - 2 to keep the Chief Illiniwek mascot, but suggested "the school continue working with opponents to find a compromise."


To propose such a compromise in 2001, the Board appointed Trustee Roger Plummer. A few months later Plummer recommended the obvious, either replace Chief Illiniwek with a less offensive mascot or retain the Chief [2]. At the next BOT meeting, the Board once again evaded the issue and took no decision.


Not only did the University refuse to take action on the elimination of Chief Illiniwek, but in April 2001 it violated its students' and professors' free-speech rights when it ordered them not to talk to potential student athletes about the Chief Illiniwek mascot dispute. The students and professors, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the University and on June 2, 2004 in a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld a lower-court ruling declaring the school's efforts to block a "negative recruiting" campaign as unconstitutional. [3]


In May 2002, the Illinois Student Government passed a resolution to retire the chief. [4]. Once again the BOT took no action.


Finally in Nov, 2003, Trustee Francis Caroll introduced a resolution calling for the retirement of the Chief Illiniwek dance and symbol (not the name) [5] and one day before the BOT meeting removed it from the agenda stating; "I am a consensus builder, and it is important to me that consensus be reached on this topic before I bring it back to the Board. Therefore, I am withholding the resolution".


In March 2004, student Trustee Nate Allen was present at a protest rally organized by the Progressive Resources/Action Cooperative (PRC). A day after the rally, he reintroduced Caroll's original resolution for the April 15, 2004 meeting. One day later BOT Chair Eppley undemocratically cancelled the April 15 meeting; Tom Hardy, University spokesperson made the following remark: "It was felt on the part of Chairman Eppley and a majority of trustees that there wasn't sufficient new business to warrant a new board meeting (in April)," Hardy said. [6]. This statement was rather strange since the BOT had to appoint a new president, new chancellor and decide on the budget at the meeting.


In 2004, the mascot, dance, name and costume still remain and perpetuate racism and discrimination on this campus. At the March 2004 rally, a few African-American students protesting the "Chief" were told to go back to Africa if they thought the mascot was racist by white students. The "Chief" has divided the campus along racial lines; classrooms, communities, and rallies are divided where people of color protest the chief and a majority of the white student/community feel they are "honoring" Native Americans by retaining the mascot. The racist caricature called the "Chief" that remains on this campus after more than 77 years is an obvious symbol of racism and once again the repeated story of the majority ignoring the minority voice in the name of "democracy".


Unfortunately, the quiescence of South Asians on campus to join this struggle against the racist "Chief" perpetuates their status as the model-minority. In an effort to make a statement on behalf of South Asians and in the hope to reach a larger South Asian audience the South Asian Collective (SAC), a progressive student organization, joined forces with organizations like the PRC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Latina La Casa and Red Roots.


The SAC is a registered student organization at the of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and aims to offer a platform to critically discuss social, political, and economic issues related to South Asia and the diasporic communities. Efforts to build coalitions with other South Asian groups on campus have thus far failed. But the struggle to try and initiate dialog on the racism and dehumanization that the "Chief" represent continues.


Niranjan Shah, an Indian and one of only 2 people of color on the Board, has yet to make a statement in favor of eliminating Chief Illiniwek and has added to the model-minority image of South Asians. At a meeting with SAC and PRC members on March 11, 2004, Shah said that he believes that a compromise on this issue can only be reached by finding the "middle-path" between completely eliminating and completely retaining the mascot. Letters and discussions with him on behalf of the South Asian Collective and other organizations have not yet persuaded him to reevaluate the issue.


On April 15, 2004 after more than 15 years of peaceful protest and lobbying for the elimination of Chief Illiniwek had failed, 40 members of the Multicultural Coalition Against Chief Illiniwek organized a non-violent action at Swanlund Administration Building in UIUC campus. This sit-in was planned for the day that the BOT of U of I had cancelled scheduled meeting to yet again avoid addressing a resolution to eliminate "Chief Illiniwek."


After 32 hours of negotiating with university administrators, sit-in participants agreed to leave the building with several victories; a few of which include, a commitment from Trustee Francis Caroll (the other person of color on the Board) to put the resolution to retire the "Chief" on the June agenda; and meetings with leaders of both the Black and Latina Caucuses in Illinois General Assembly [7].


Members of the Coalition, which included students, alumni, faculty and local residents, met with Illinois Senate President Emil Jones on April 27, 2004 as a result of the sit-in. Emil Jones, leader of the Black Caucus, made the following statement after the meeting: "Just because it's popular doesn't mean that it's right," and compared Chief supporters to segregationists. [8]


UIUC is not the only University with a race based mascot. As of June 2004, there are more than 2500 grade schools, high schools, universities and national sports teams that use a Native American symbol as their mascot [9].


On June 15, 2004 Trustee Francis Carroll failed the anti-"Chief" movement by introducing a "consensus" resolution with pro-"chief" Trustee Sodemann instead of her original resolution to eliminate Chief Illiniwek. At the BOT meeting on June 17, 2004 the resolution passed on an 8-1 majority with the sole vote against it from student Trustee Nate Allen. Allen tried to introduce an anti-"chief" resolution which was rejected he also offered an amended which restricted a deadline of July 31, 2005 on the consensus which was also rejected. Allen, the lone BOT member who has stuck by his anti-"chief" stance ended his one year term at the June 17, 2004 [10].


And thus the struggle continues.


To join this campaign and help eliminate this racist mascot from the UIUC:

  1. Join the call-in campaign to the Board of Trustees. More information is available at: http://www.prairienet.org/prc/
  2. Get your University to boycott U of I football and basketball teams. In March 2004, University of Oregon issued a formal statement saying they would not meet UIUC on the basketball court. In response, Trustee Schmidt made the following statement: "If more and more universities take the position that they don't want to play teams that perpetuates stereotypes, it would prompt some sort of change."; making it evident that actions such as these will force the Board of Trustees to make some decisions.
  3. Get your University/department to boycott conferences etc. at UIUC.


More Information:

•  Plummer Report: http://www.uillinois.edu/trustees/plummerreport/

•  U of I Board of Trustees: http://www.uillinois.edu/trustees/

•  Progressive Resources/Action Cooperative: http://www.prairienet.org/prc/

•  American Anthropological Association makes a statement on Chief Illiniwek http://www.canku-luta.org/winter00/mascot_updates.html

•  PBS Media on Chief Illiniwek: http://www.will.uiuc.edu/am/projects/chiefilliniwek/features.htm

•  National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media: http://www.aics.org/NCRSM/id20_m.htm

•  South Asian Collective: http://www.uiuc.edu/ro/SAC


  1. Plummer Report, section IV http://www.uiuc.edu/dialogue/report_files/IV.html
  2. http://www.uillinois.edu/trustees/plummerreport/)
  3. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/west/chi-0406020350jun02,1,2693751.story
  4. http://www.dailyillini.com/may02/may02/news/stories/news_story02.shtml
  5. http://www.retirethechief.org/Archives/issue0303.html
  6. http://www.dailyillini.com/news/1169
  7. http://www.prairienet.org/prc/anti.html/siint.html
  8. http://chicagosports.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/chi-0404280369apr28,1,3233051.story?coll=cs-college-headlines
  9. http://www.aics.org/mascot/mascot.html
  10. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-040617illiniwek,1,1978762.story?coll=chi-news-hed