CHAMPAIGN – Eighteen University of Illinois alumni who have played Chief Illiniwek throughout the decades are expected to return to campus this weekend to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the school's American Indian symbol.
On Saturday, the Fighting Illini football team will take the field in Memorial Stadium for the last time this season. Despite speculation that Saturday's performance could be Chief Illiniwek's last performance in the stadium, Illiniwek supporters said they are not planning any farewell events.
More than six months after the NCAA upheld its decision to restrict the use of American Indian mascots, imagery and symbols at championship games, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees has not announced any decision about if, when or how the UI will retire the chief.
The Honor the Chief Society, one of the most vocal groups that supports retaining Chief Illiniwek, will host a buffet dinner Friday at Hawthorn Suites in Champaign. And the University of Illinois is arranging other events featuring the former Chiefs.
Among those attending the activities are Bill Newton, who played Chief Illiniwek from 1931 to 1932.
"It's been a long time, and we ought to celebrate," said Jean Edwards, co-founder of the Honor the Chief Society. "We still hope this will not be the end of it," she said.
"I remain optimistic," said Howard Wakeland, the society's president, referring to pending legislation before Congress and a lawsuit in North Dakota. The legislation would allow universities to sue the NCAA and seek damages for lost revenue if barred from hosting a championship game. The University of North Dakota, banned from hosting postseason events because of its Fighting Sioux imagery, filed suit against the NCAA earlier this fall.
Trustees may have been mum on the issue in recent months, but all has not been quiet in the pro- and anti-Chief camps.
Chief backers have criticized a group of UI professors who sent letters to prospective student athletes about Chief Illiniwek.
And one UI student set up an online petition calling for the resignations of the professors.
Most recently, those opposed to the Chief have criticized Wakeland for comments he made last month at a conference at Arizona State University.
While participating in a panel discussion for the conference "Pride or Prejudice: Indian Mascots and Imagery in the United States," Wakeland said, "If we're talking about minorities, our big problem (in Illinois) is black students as opposed to Indian. (American Indians) are a group that should be helped, but our major concern when you're in Chicago or East St. Louis or places like that, our No. 1 problem in diversity is with black students. Now the No. 2 problem for us is now Mexican, Mexicano."
Wakeland said people misunderstood his comments.
"My whole point was, in the minority area, our biggest challenge is to work with black youth. And that is now changing rapidly, there are more Hispanics," he said.
Stephen Kaufman, an emeritus professor with the UI who for years has urged the UI to stop using American Indian imagery, said he was not surprised by Wakeland's comments.
"Hopefully the board of trustees and University of Illinois administration will use this moment to disassociate themselves from the chief society, but more importantly from Chief Illiniwek because it is racial stereotyping," Kaufman said.
Trustees meet in Springfield today but are not expected to take any action regarding Chief Illiniwek.
"The board of trustees has a consensus process under way," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy. The board is following the pending legislation and lawsuit, but ultimately what the board does regarding Chief Illiniwek does not hinge on the outcomes of those situations, he said.
"No decisions have been made," he said.