Suggestions, opinions come flooding out at UI's open house on Chief

Suggestions, opinions come flooding out at UI's open house on Chief

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URBANA — Create a museum exhibit about Chief Illiniwek.

Choose a mascot to replace the Chief — or don't even consider it.

Support Native American students and programs.

Communicate better with alumni. And stop the yelling.

Plenty of opinions, and some practical suggestions, were shared Tuesday at the Illini Union at a public event designed to build on a recent campus conversation about Native American imagery on campus. The University of Illinois hosted an open house for the public to comment on suggestions that grew out of that April 10 event.

Suggestions were divided into four themes printed on large posters around the room — Process, Collective History, Education and Moving Forward, as well as an "other" category. Each listed a few sample comments, and guests had an opportunity to add their own with Post-it Notes, or endorse other comments by adding a sticker to a note. A facilitator manned a table near each poster.

A sign at the entrance acknowledged the historical context of the university.

"We are currently on the lands of the Peoria Kaskaskia, Peankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. It is necessary to acknowledge these Tribal nations and for us to work with them as we move forward as an institution."

One of the busiest tables was in the Process section, with facilitator Sam Smith mediating a spirited but civil discussion by a diverse group that included former unofficial Chief portrayer Alex Dozier and longtime Chief opponent Stephen Kaufman.

"These two guys are going to argue until Moses comes back," Smith said later. "The point is not whether they still disagree, but what do we do next? And how do we do that?"

Some of the more practical suggestions urged the UI to commemorate the Chief's history on campus within a larger context about native people, perhaps through an exhibit at the Spurlock Museum, or hold a ceremony honoring the Chief, with alumni and a Native American authority on hand.

"Chief doesn't have to be a mascot to be honored," one commenter wrote.

Others called for improving educational programs on various aspects of the issue, by urging students to read the book "Dancing at Halftime," for example, or by supporting American Indian Studies and the Native American House.

One of the more popular notes, with seven stickers, read, "Can we work together to support Native communities?"

Others reflected the opposing viewpoints on the Chief from the last 30 years, including:

— "Implement a new non-human mascot ASAP," countered by "How do we heal? Bring Back The Chief."

— "The two sides are not equivalent. We need to stop equating cultural appropriation with living cultures," read one. "Acknowledge that the depiction of native cultures on this campus are also a source of pride for some native people as well and that their opinions deserve equal attention," said another.

— "ALUMNI have to be involved!!!" along with, "Dare to sever ties with alumni and others who do not support respect of native dignity" and "More student involvement ... Too many old timers involved."

— Finally, "Remember that people can tear down sticky notes and add extra false stickers to support their point."

'Collective good'

But there were also calls for civil dialogue: "Everyone must be a part of the conversation" and "Tolerant discussion between both sides instead of yelling."

Organizers said they were pleased that the event drew a cross-section of viewpoints.

Facilitator Trent Shumway, who works as an undergraduate recruiter on campus, said many of the same people who took part in the April 10 conversation showed up Tuesday, but others did, too.

"It seems that everyone here is for the collective good, about moving this thing forward," Shumway said. They may not agree on how, he said, but "the conversations have been stellar and the people have been really responsive and respectful. I do think something good will happen. I hope."

Among those attending was Margret Cuttill of Decatur, daughter of the late Webber Borchers, the second Chief Illiniwek, who once rode a horse onto the field and threw a lance over the goalpost. He lived on the Ogalala Sioux reservation in 1927, was named an honorary member of the tribe and raised money to purchase an early set of Chief regalia.

"He felt Indians should be put on a pedestal, and respected, and not looked down on, because really they had lived here for thousands of years," she said. "And the white man did not necessarily do the nicest things to them."

Cuttill still supports the Chief and said the chancellor has to find a "middle point" moving forward.

"He's got to be a peacemaker," she said.

Next steps

Rusty Barcelo, a special assistant to the chancellor who is overseeing the process, said the information from the sessions will be pulled together for a report to the chancellor with "recommendations about what we've learned," a process that will extend into the summer.

It's possible other public events will be held. "It's clear to me there's a need for people to have these discussions," she said.

That may include something targeted for alumni. Barcelo and several other staff members held a mini version of the April 10 conversation with alumni clubs who met on April 21, which she called an "impressive discussion." One message she heard loud and clear is that the campus needs to work on better explaining to alumni "why and when decisions are made."

That feeling goes back to 2007, when the Chief was retired and "decisions were made and it's not clear what that was all about," she said.

"He disappeared overnight, that hurt," one alumni member wrote.

All sides of the debate complained about a lack of follow-through after the fact, Barcelo added.

"I'm hoping what we're doing is trying to bridge that, if you will," she said.

Barcelo said she has some sense of how to move forward or at least "information to build on," including more education, another suggestion that came from both sides. That might include orientation programs, new classes, professional training or more conversations across campus, she said.