UI's Chief Illiniwek report: Develop new traditions but honor divisive past

UI's Chief Illiniwek report: Develop new traditions but honor divisive past

Submit your Letter to the Editor here

CHAMPAIGN — A report from last spring's conversation on Chief Illiniwek recommends that the University of Illinois explore the idea of a mascot along with other new traditions but also commemorate the history of the Chief on campus.

With a focus on finding common ground, it also calls on the campus to teach people about Native American history and imagery, engage the community in Native culture, and continue a dialogue with alumni and other groups to build "understanding and respect." And it urges the campus to come up with a "clear plan of next steps," with regular updates to ensure transparency.

Chancellor Robert Jones said the campus is already working on some of the short-term ideas suggested, such as a historical commemoration of the Chief and strengthening ties with the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma.

And the report's call for a commission to delve into some of the recommendations and come back with an implementation plan is already in the works, he said.

The panel will include representatives of different stakeholders in the Chief debate, who must be committed to finding a common path forward, Jones said. "Otherwise, we don't get anywhere."

"Clearly, we're not going to be able to do everything that's in the report. We need a way to vet some of those ideas and to broaden opportunities for people" to participate, he said.

The report, obtained by The News-Gazette before its general release today, provides a road map for the campus following the April 10 "critical conversation" on the Chief and three follow-up sessions with alumni and the general public, which were designed to provide some consensus on the divisive, 30-year-old Chief debate. Altogether, more than 600 people took part.

The report, from an advisory committee led by Rusty Barcelo, a special assistant to the chancellor, said three decades later the campus and community remain "deeply fractured," citing a "shared sense of exhaustion, confusion and anger that we are not further along in the process." It urged the campus to continue the process to help the community "acknowledge its past and continue to unite."

"It does represent for us one of our best opportunities to move beyond this really divisive issue, to find a place where we can truly honor Native American heritage and culture, as well as provide an opportunity to really engage with our alumni in a much more effective way around this issue," Jones said.

While the views expressed during the conversations showed that "polar opposites" remain, the report said, "there is a wider range in between than we had anticipated, including those who are still seeking answers about the Chief and its retirement or who aren't sure how to resolve their feelings about the Chief with their current values."

Most people felt "alienated" by the school's response to the controversy over the past 11 years, the report said.

"No single idea can solve this issue. Therefore, strategic, multifaceted approaches that will contribute to new traditions at the University of Illinois are needed," the report said.

Participants had varied ideas for what those should be, but given the UI's 2007 action to retire the Chief, the committee focused on ideas aimed at a "unified future," the report said.

One heard repeatedly was that the university should introduce a mascot or develop new traditions to bring closure to the issue, the report said, as recommended by a 2016 student government committee and endorsed by the Academic Senate.

Jones said he will ask the commission to take a deeper look at ideas and come back to him with a recommendation.

"We're not going to try to avoid the issue of discussing a mascot, but it has to be done in a very thoughtful way," with more input, he said. "We're not saying absolutely no at this point. But it's a complex issue. We just need additional time and analysis to decide if that's something we're going to pursue or not."

He thinks developing new traditions is a separate issue that could be tackled "on a much shorter timeline." Jones plans to ask the commission and student groups to consider things that could generate more excitement at athletic events or about the university in general.

The bottom line, the chancellor said, is that the Chief isn't coming back.

"It's a part of our history," he said.

The report said participants felt the UI's process for dealing with Chief-related issues after the tradition was retired in 2007 wasn't well-documented. Many alumni felt they weren't given a chance to "grieve" the loss of the Chief.

There was a strong desire for the UI to make a statement about the reasons for ending the Chief tradition, though people disagreed about how to acknowledge "competing perspectives" on that issue, and most wanted a formal documentation of that part of the UI's history, the report said.

The Advisory Committee recommended documenting the history of the Chief and Native imagery on campus through storytelling and archival tools. Among the suggestions were a museum exhibit and an oral history project, possibly using the "StoryCorps" model, to collect reflections about the Chief from American Indian students and faculty, the Council of Chiefs, community members, UI trustees and student activists.

The report said some participants also felt the UI has a responsibility to teach students accurate information about American Indians, including a history of the university, the land it occupies, Native imagery and Chief Illiniwek.

Jones said the campus will continue to seek input on a historical commemoration, promising it will be "fair and honest and appropriate."

"We're not going to try to bury history," he said. "Chief Illiniwek was a part of this university for 80 years or more."

The campus is also doing things already to "make sure Native people are at the core of everything we do at the university," Jones added.

Starting last spring, the chancellor began opening all important campus events, including commencement and the freshman convocation, with a statement acknowledging "the fact that we're on the land of the people who came before us."

One thing that came through from all involved: Any process moving forward must be "transparent and collaborative," involving people from a variety of perspectives including alumni and Indian members of the campus community, the report said.

"That's an absolute commitment," Jones said.

Jones planned to send copies of the report today to the Peoria tribe, the Honor the Chief Society, the Council of Chiefs and others on all sides of the debate.

He believes more people feel like their voices are being heard and there is a "coalition of the willing" to find a solution.

With all of the conflict over the past year and beyond, he said, the status quo isn't sustainable.

"You have to ask yourself: What is the end game? What is the long-term vitality of where we are now?" he said. "It's been stuck for the last decade or more, a very divisive and uncomfortable place to be."

The recommendations

Major recommendations from the University of Illinois' "Critical Conversations on Native Imagery" report:

— Develop a clear plan of next steps, with short-range (one-year) and long-range (five-year) timelines and regular updates to ensure transparency.

— Appoint a commission, with representatives from "many stakeholder groups," to direct the process and define future strategies to reach those goals.

— Develop educational strategies to teach the campus community and people statewide about American-Indian histories and culture, including the UI's relationship with Native nations and perspectives about Chief Illiniwek.

— Create ongoing dialogue to build understanding and respect.

— Explore the "possibility of new traditions that could include a mascot," as recommended by a 2016 student government committee and endorsed by the Academic Senate, weighing the advantages and disadvantages.

— Create opportunities for "celebration and community building" by recognizing innovations by American Indian scholars and engaging the community in traditional and contemporary native culture.

— Document the history of Native imagery on campus through storytelling and archival tools, such as historical timelines and preserving individual narratives.

Additional ideas from various subcommittees:

— Establish a public history class or special project to research Native imagery at Illinois.

— Initiate an oral history project to collect reflections on the Chief tradition, possibly using the StoryCorps model, from Native students and faculty, the Council of Chiefs, community members, UI trustees and student activists.

— Establish a museum exhibit on the history of Native imagery at Illinois.

— Hold additional "critical conversations" with university groups such as the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Alumni Association and Marching Illini, to develop a deeper understanding of this topic.

— Organize presentations on the history of Native imagery at Illinois for UI trustees, alumni leaders and other stakeholders.

— Make funds available to support education about American-Indian issues and bring speakers to campus and focus events around Native history and culture.

— Provide more resources to the Native American House and American Indian Studies program for research and educational efforts about Native culture.

— Increase the number of Native students, faculty and staff, and provide additional scholarships and resources to support American-Indian students.

-