Guest commentary: A story of the Chief and the chancellors
By Ann and Dave Bechtel
We applaud the Council of Chiefs, former portrayers of Chief Illiniwek, for their efforts to find middle ground to continue their tradition at the University of Illinois. We, and thousands of others, would prefer that our Chief return as he was, but the council engaged the Peoria tribe, last remnants of the Illinois/Illiniwek confederation, to develop a modified symbol acceptable to them and critics within the university, only to be spurned, undercut and disrespected.
John Foreman, News-Gazette publisher, wrote a recent commentary on Chief Illiniwek that describes the unilateral and unequivocal rejection of the Council of Chiefs and the Peoria tribe by the chancellor, despite overwhelming student and alumni support for our symbol.
History repeats itself. Loren Tate observed years ago: "But for a Johnny-come-lately (Chancellor Nancy Cantor) marching into this hurricane with slim background and a large agenda, someone who didn't attend the U of I, someone who hasn't experienced and doesn't appreciate ... traditions ..." Indeed, recent chancellors seem to arrive on campus from someplace else with the preconception that the Illinois unenlightened need to be told about the error of their ways. "It is the past," "get over it," "move forward" they say. The Peoria Chief, John Froman, said he told the Council of Chiefs, "This is purely a University of Illinois decision."
We commend the Peoria tribe for their willingness to have discussions. Recent chancellors should learn more about Illinois history and the Peoria tribe.
The Illinois confederation included six tribes that populated what became the state of Illinois. One of them, the Peoria, combined with other tribes both in and out of the confederation when Indians succumbed to "white-man" diseases and were driven from Illinois. They moved first to Kansas and then to Miami, Okla., where they are affiliated with remnants of the Miami, a non-confederation tribe. The Peoria lost their federal status in 1950, but regained it in 1972. They are a population of about 3,000, with 300 in Oklahoma, governed by a three-person executive council. The tribe's present-day lineage has severely diluted connections to the original Illinois Indians, but they survived! The former portrayers sought them out and developed a relationship as they have with other Indian tribes over the years.
There were no Illinois tribes to emulate, so our second Chief, Webber Borchers, during the Depression, hitchhiked to the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to have an authentic costume made. He spent several weeks with the Sioux while the outfit was being made and established a precedent that succeeding Chiefs continued.
Kurt Gruben (1990-91) reflected that visits to several reservations to learn of Native American culture were a highlight for him as was the sharing of that acquired knowledge during his many speaking engagements. Accordingly, thousands of school children and adults benefited from that firsthand knowledge. Bob Bischoff (1947) sought training in the dance with the Blackfoot. Idel Stith (1943) was raised on an Osage Indian reservation and performed the Osage war dance. Frank Fools Crow, an Oglala Lakota Sioux shaman, presented handmade regalia to the university saying to Fred Cash (1965-66) "We go on from here together." He delivered a similar message in prayer before the U.S. Senate in 1975. Ivan Dozier, our current Chief, is Cherokee. The Chiefs financially support Oglala Lakota College through President Thomas Shortbull and have established a scholarship in Frank Fools Crow's name.
The chancellors and some others discredit the 2002 Sports Illustrated survey that found 83 percent of Native American respondents had no problem with teams using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters and symbols. The report concluded there was total disconnect between Indian activists and Native American respondents on this issue, resulting in the activists disparaging the Native American population that they "don't even know when they are being insulted." Sound familiar?
A previous chancellor, Morton Weir, in 1989 called our Chief a "dignified and respected symbol." Another chancellor, Michael Aiken, in 2001, tried to moderate anti-Chief faculty to protect the university from potential NCAA rules violations and was sued for his efforts to be responsible.
The Council of Chiefs, coordinating with the Peoria tribe, has offered a responsive and responsible proposal. We ask the university and the board of trustees to respond in kind, where chancellors have not, and engage both in further discussions.
Our Alma Mater will be back soon to send her time-honored message once again, "To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings."
Ann and Dave Bechtel are members of the board of the Honor the Chief Society and Ann is a charter member. They know and respect the men in the Council of Chiefs and knew several when they were students at the university. They have been active in the community and both are McKinley Presbyterian elders and are social justice, progressive liberals.