New Chief Illiniwek portrayers announced
URBANA – Logan Ponce is the latest Chief Illiniwek, and likely will be the second in a row who never gets to perform the famed halftime dance at University of Illinois events.
Ponce, a junior from St. Charles majoring in general engineering, was announced as the 37th Chief Illiniwek on a rainy Monday morning in front of the Alma Mater statue on campus. UI sophomore Rob Zaldivar of Palatine was announced as assistant Chief Illiniwek.
The two were selected this past weekend by the Council of Chiefs, a group of former chiefs, following a weekend audition in Gibson City.
The UI officially retired the Chief in 2007.
Ponce said he's thrilled by the selection and that he's hopeful the UI might someday reinstate the Chief. Ponce has served as assistant Chief this year.
"I still see so much support," he said. "The referendum (supporting reinstatement) passed among the (UI) students. It was the best support we ever had."
UI officials could not be reached for comment.
Fans still support the Chief, Ponce said.
"It's unique to Illinois and has been such an important part of our history," he said. "It's part of our heritage. We look forward to continuing it."
Ponce said he is of Mexican descent, but that he doesn't see the Chief as being a racist symbol.
"Not at all," he said. "Obviously not, or I wouldn't be here. My family is of mixed race. Racial tolerance has never been an issue for me."
Zaldivar said he was thrilled to learn there would still be tryouts for Chief Illiniwek and that he attended several workshops for the event.
"This year when they announced there would be tryouts, I got all excited," he said. "I didn't miss one workshop."
The outgoing Chief, Dan Maloney, said that while he has not performed as Chief Illiniwek during the past year, he has given some speeches and did several autograph signings to benefit charitable organizations. One of the important roles of the Chief, he said, is to raise money for the $10,000 annual scholarships that benefit students at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D.
The UI Board of Trustees ended the 80-year tradition of the Chief in the spring 2007, with his last performance being at the final men's home basketball game on Feb. 21, 2007. That move allowed the UI to host NCAA championship events and removed it from the list of universities subject to sanctions for the use of American Indian imagery.
In August 2005, the NCAA issued a policy prohibiting postseason competition events at schools with "hostile or abusive" racial, ethnic or national orgin mascots. The UI was one of 18 schools included on the list.
The UI appealed to the NCAA and won the right to use the names "Illini" or "Fighting Illini," but did not get approval for Chief Illiniwek.
Maloney said his dream is that someday Chief Illiniwek would be allowed to resume performing in some fashion. But he said the Council of Chiefs does not want to do anything that would jeopardize the status of UI athletics with the NCAA.