Urbana leaders resist move to revive Chief Illiniwek

Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise talks with trustee Ricardo Estrada. “You can’t go backwards,” she said about a proposal to bring back Chief Illiniwek. Photo: L. Brian Stauffer/Inside Illinois (click on image for larger file size)

Although an Urbana-Champaign alumnus made a plea to university trustees last week to reinstate Chief Illiniwek, campus leaders say they favor a new symbol.

The UI Board of Trustees voted to stop using the chief in 2007, after several decades of controversy, hearings, reports and a threatened NCAA sanction. Foes of the chief, a student-portrayed, Native American-themed, costumed character who danced at halftime during sporting events, said the symbol was racist.

“I believe you can’t go backwards,” Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise recently told the campus senate executive committee, which approved her proposal to drop the chief and select a new symbol.

“I think having something in its place would fill a void, but would have to be a student-driven thing.”

At the public comments portion of the May 29 trustees meeting in Chicago, former chief portrayer Ron Legue asked trustees to bring back the chief on a limited basis.

“Six years after the chief’s retirement, the desire for what the chief represents to Illini is still very strong across this country,” he said. “We hear this from our fellow Illini from every walk of life.”

Legue, representing a group of former portrayers, suggested the university enter talks with leaders of the Oklahoma-based Peoria tribe to sanction a “re-invented” Chief Illiniwek tradition.

Under the proposal, which was not acted upon by trustees, the chief would appear twice during the year, once for a “Three-In-One” performance (three Illini-themed songs performed by the marching band) and again for an event to raise money for the tribe, the university and charitable programs. The chief would remain stationary and not dance during the appearances, Legue said.

The chief’s regalia, originally inspired by Lakota-Sioux dress, would change to reflect Peoria tribe tradition, he said.

Joyce Tolliver, a professor of Spanish and a member of the Urbana senate executive committee, spoke against Legue’s proposal at the trustees meeting.

“For some people, the chief represents a proud tradition; for others, the chief represents a shameful legacy,” Tolliver said. “What is not open to debate is that the use of that symbol sharply divided the university community. That division will become a matter of regular public display again if this request is granted.”

She said bringing back the chief, even on a limited basis, “will consume untold hours in distracting debate that does nothing to move our university into a better future.”

Wise told the Urbana senate that her decision to permanently abandon the chief symbol came after consultations with all sides of the issue, including Peoria tribal leaders.

Wise said officials will work to improve Native American student recruitment as part of a campuswide diversity initiative.

“I’m trying to find ways to elevate our knowledge of Native American culture as it relates to Illinois,” Wise said.

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