It’s official: Chief Illiniwek, the symbol of the athletic teams at the Urbana campus since 1926, will be retired. The UI Board of Trustees, which met March 13 in Urbana, voted 9-1 in favor of retiring the Chief, the object of heated debate in recent decades by opponents who viewed him as offensive and racist, and advocates who said that he honored Native Americans.
Going, going, gone
Only trustee David Dorris voted against the consensus resolution that sealed the fate of Chief Illiniwek. Before the trustees voted on the resolution, Dorris questioned the legality of board chair Lawrence Eppley's Feb. 16 announcement that the Chief would be discontinued, saying that the board had not voted on it. The amended resolution put final disposition of the tradition in the hands of Chancellor Richard Herman.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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The names “Chief Illiniwek” and “Chief,” and the related logo and regalia will be retired as well; however, the UI will continue to use the terms “Illini” and “Fighting Illini.” Chancellor Richard Herman will be responsible for the final disposition of the Chief, a process that may take six months to a year as trademark and licensing issues are decided. The board’s action concluded a process that it began in June 2004 when it adopted a resolution that stated it would seek a “consensus conclusion” on the Chief issue.
The consensus resolution adopted March 13 reinforced board chair Lawrence Eppley’s Feb. 16 announcement that the symbol would be retired, with his final performance at the last home game of the men’s basketball team Feb. 21. The announcement made the UI immediately eligible to host postseason National Collegiate Athletic Association events. The UI and several other universities with Native American team names, mascots and imagery were barred from hosting tournaments under a policy that the NCAA adopted in August 2005. The UI’s continued removal from the sanction list would be provisional upon its retiring the name Chief Illiniwek and the related Native American imagery, the NCAA said in a Feb. 15 letter.
However, trustee David Dorris and other people had questioned the legality of Eppley’s Feb. 16 announcement, saying the board had not voted on it. The dissenting vote on the consensus resolution about the Chief’s retirement came from Dorris, who said he is of American Indian, African American and Irish heritage, and said: “Of all the symbols of the university, Chief Illiniwek most clearly evokes feelings of pride and dignity among students, alumni and friends.”
“Symbols don’t create feelings, they reflect,” Dorris said. “If you look at Chief Illiniwek and see hatred, shame and embarrassment, perhaps you should consider where those feelings come from. If you look at Chief Illiniwek and see goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage and dignity, you have a right to consider where those feelings come from. I can accept change. … What I cannot do is dishonor the memory of the good people that I knew and loved. … The voting to end Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of the UI without continuation of the elements and principles for which it stands that are not related to Native Americans is a public declaration that the people in the past who engaged in this tradition were wrong and committed something that was hostile and abusive. I will never do that.”
Dorris proposed a resolution, which was voted down, that called for the UI to join in a lawsuit by Chief portrayers and students Dan Maloney and Logan Ponce against the NCAA. In part, the suit seeks a declaratory court judgment on the legality, validity and enforceability of the NCAA sanctions. Trustee James Montgomery said he opposed litigating the issue further because it would delay “what I think is inevitable.”
“We heard today and every day that I’ve been on this board from people who were offended” by the Chief, said Trustee Robert Sperling, who chairs the board’s athletics committee. “I think that’s a good reason to change. No one’s going to be happy with this decision; each side’s lost something.”
Debbie Reese, a professor of American Indian Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who is an enrolled member of the Nambe Pueblo Tribe and longtime opponent of the symbol, was happy with the board’s decision. “I was very pleased to hear board members embrace this issue as one with moral implications, that it’s not a question of majority rule but of doing what’s right for the future and well being of the university and all its students. It’s time to stop wasting money on defending something that should have ended a long time ago and work toward developing a sports program that all students can partake in.”