Supporters hope to keep 'Fighting Illini,' reinvent Chief Illiniwek

Supporters hope to keep 'Fighting Illini,' reinvent Chief Illiniwek

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SPRINGFIELD — On the heels of a trip by two University of Illinois trustees to Oklahoma, a Chief Illiniwek supporter Thursday urged the board to forge closer ties with the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and win its support for the "Fighting Illini" name and possibly a new version of the Chief.

Speaking during the board's public comment session, 1988 UI graduate Colleen McCoy of Woodridge said the university should ask the Peoria Tribe to endorse the use of "Fighting Illini" for UI sports teams and see if it would be willing to work with a committee of former Chief Illiniwek portrayers on "a new incarnation of Chief Illiniwek, which may include a new tribal costume and regalia that is representative of the Peoria Tribe."

McCoy also suggested the UI ask the Peoria to create a new "stomp dance" to be performed by a member of the tribe who would receive a UI scholarship and serve as an ambassador on campus.

A similar idea for a "reinvented" Chief was floated in 2013 but ultimately did not win university or tribal support.

McCoy described that and other initiatives as a way to maintain "the proud symbol of our university, the Illini" and honor the Peoria people, descendants of the Illini Confederation that once inhabited the Mississippi River Valley.

Trustees Stuart King and Edward McMillan flew to Oklahoma on May 11 to meet with the new chief of the Peoria Tribe, Craig Harper. UI officials said the meeting covered a range of topics, including trying to find a "middle way" past the lingering Chief controversy, but the trustees had "no particular agenda."

The Peoria Tribe recently issued a statement reiterating its April 2000 resolution calling on the university to stop using Chief Illiniwek and referring to it as a "degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all American Indian people" and does not accurately represent or honor the Peoria Tribe.

Board Chairman Tim Koritz said Thursday the full board hasn't discussed the two trustees' trip to Oklahoma, which he said they took under their own initiative.

But Koritz and other UI officials made clear this week that the Chief isn't coming back.

"The reality is, if we want to compete in intercollegiate athletics, in the Big Ten, the NCAA basically has the monopoly on that," he said. Before the 2007 vote to retire the Chief, the NCAA had prohibited the UI from hosting postseason tournaments as long as it used Native American imagery in athletics.

Koritz and Chancellor Robert Jones also noted that the university has had a longstanding relationship with the Peoria tribe, including scholarships for tribal members, business consulting, community health programs and other initiatives.

Jones, who visited tribal leaders in Oklahoma after becoming chancellor, said the question now is how to deepen those relationships, honor Native American heritage and help the tribe improve its "economic vitality."

McCoy suggested giving the tribe a seat on the UI Board of Trustees and creating outreach programs to address health care, education, substance abuse prevention, infrastructure protects and other issues.

"We'd certainly be open to expanding to benefit both institutions," Koritz said, though he didn't address specific suggestions. "The university wants to pursue additional liaisons with all Native Americans to try to promote their inclusion on our campus."

Eunice Davidson of North Dakota, a member of the Native American Guardians Association, also spoke in support of universities adopting Indian names. She said not all Native Americans are opposed to the idea.

Davidson was among those who traveled to Champaign-Urbana last fall to perform a dance and pow-wow outside a UI football game. The Guardians Association was created after the University of North Dakota decided to drop its "Fighting Sioux" nickname, to preserve what it sees as positive Native American imagery in sports.

"We do not support a mascot, but we do fight for the honor and dignity of these names and what they represent," Davidson said. "I strongly urge you to keep the Fighting Illini alive not just for your pride of our university but the honor it brings to Native American Indians."

Later, both Koritz and Jones said the "Fighting Illini" name isn't changing.

"To my understanding, there's never been any discussion about getting rid of the Fighting Illini name. Chancellor Jones has stated that repeatedly. We have no intention of getting rid of the term 'Fighting Illini,'" Koritz said.

"It's not something I'm interested in," Jones added.

Jones said any movement on the Chief issue will have to come through the ongoing "critical conversation" process the campus launched in April.

"I would hope that going forward we could arrive at a mutual understanding and, for lack of a better term, I'm looking for peace and prosperity for the university on this. We'll have to find a way to engage all parties and move forward in a collegial manner," Koritz said.

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