2 UI trustees visited Peoria tribe's new chief

2 UI trustees visited Peoria tribe's new chief

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As a campus effort to bridge the divide over Chief Illiniwek continues, two University of Illinois trustees quietly flew to Oklahoma last week to meet with the new chief of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.

Trustees Stuart King of Champaign and Edward McMillan of Greenville met Friday with the newly elected chief of the Peoria, Craig Harper, to discuss Native American imagery and joint projects the university has undertaken with the tribe, which includes descendants of the Illini Confederation, UI officials said.

Neither King nor McMillan would discuss their trip publicly, referring questions to UI spokesman Tom Hardy.

Hardy said the discussion covered a number of topics, including trying to find some "middle way" forward on the Chief debate that both sides could accept. Hardy said the trustees did not define that, and he wasn't aware of any specific ideas that emerged from the discussions.

The trustees did not inform Chancellor Robert Jones about the trip ahead of time.

"I'm not aware they had a conversation with Chancellor Jones or anyone else," Hardy said.

Board Chairman Tim Koritz characterized it as a "fact-finding" trip to "discuss any areas of mutual interest."

He said the visit wasn't a Board of Trustees initiative, "just two board members who showed an interest in having a conversation. I don't know what the conversation was."

Koritz said it was not an effort to get the Peoria to endorse reinstating Chief Illiniwek, which was retired as the UI symbol in 2007 under pressure from the NCAA.

"I don't think that's going to happen," Koritz said.

'Not going back there'

In 2013, a group of former Chief Illiniwek portrayers urged the campus to create a "reinvented Chief tradition" with the Peoria tribe's blessing. They proposed that, twice a year, a member of the Peoria dressed in regalia from that tribe walk onto the field during the playing of the "Hail to the Orange" song with the Marching Illini, but not perform any dance or be an official university symbol. The appearance would have been tied to fundraising activity for the tribe, the UI and Native American organizations.

Former Chancellor Phyllis Wise said she didn't support bringing the Chief back to any university-sponsored event, and the chief of the Peoria at the time, John Froman, said the tribe wouldn't support the idea without the campus' blessing. He also said he would not support bringing back Chief Illiniwek, as it was "not in any way representative of Peoria culture."

Wise did meet with tribal leaders to establish a closer relationship with the Peoria and set up scholarships and other programs to help Native American students.

Hardy said last week's trip was an opportunity for King and McMillan to pay their respects to Harper, the new chief, and discuss the university's ongoing relationship with the tribe.

"They talked about, for example, how the scholarships that are available for students from the tribe can be better utilized," Hardy said. "There was no particular agenda to get something done out there. There was no outcome per se other than to continue the relationships, pledge to work to do a better job of getting the scholarships distributed to students there and to stay in touch in the future."

Hardy said he was told that they talked about Native American imagery, but added, "There's a recognition by trustees that the Chief tradition has ended; we're not going back there. Is there some kind of middle ground that can exist that brings together people from both the extreme positions to find some middle ground that people can live with? I think that's a regular challenge and concern for other people at the university."

Tribe: Time to move on

Harper did not return a phone message to The News-Gazette, but a UI spokeswoman provided a statement released by the tribe in relation to a recent question about Chief Iliniwek.

It said the tribe still adheres to a resolution approved in April 2000 calling on the university to stop using Chief Illiniwek, "as the image portrayed by Chief Iliniwek does not accurately represent or honor the heritage of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and is a degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all American Indian people."

"The Peoria Tribe of Indians does not endorse or sanction the characterization of Chief Iliniwek as mascot for the University of Illinois, nor do they have any future plans to rescind the tribal resolution, which was approved by a unanimous vote," the new statement said.

It said the tribe and current and past tribal leaders have had "great working relationships" with the UI, from the chancellor's office and UI administration to Native American House and other departments.

"We hope to continue to build on this relationship/partnership and move beyond this issue from the past," it said.

Hardy said other trustees and university officials have traveled to Oklahoma in the past to meet with Peoria leaders, including Wise. But he wasn't aware of any trustee since former board Chairman Larry Eppley, who resigned during the Category I admissions scandal in 2009. Eppley was board chairman when the board retired Chief Illiniwek in 2007.

In a letter to Jones last week, before the trustees' trip to Oklahoma, longtime Chief Illiniwek opponent Stephen Kaufman warned that trustees were undermining the chancellor's attempts to resolve lingering Chief-related issues.

Kaufman said trustees' "cajoling" of the Peoria tribe could mean "the campus is at a critical point of returning to having a race-based symbol showcasing its athletic program, in spite of your firm public declarations to the contrary."

In their March 2007 resolution that ended Chief Illiniwek's dance and the use of any Native American imagery for the university or its athletic programs, trustees delegated the Urbana campus chancellor to "manage the final disposition" of the matter, he noted.

Kaufman urged Jones to move ahead with a new symbol/mascot for the campus, as students have urged.