Guest Commentary | A death certificate for Chief Illiniwek

Guest Commentary | A death certificate for Chief Illiniwek

By JAY ROSENSTEIN

This past spring, two University of Illinois trustees set out on a secret mission to solve the seemingly unsolvable Chief Illiniwek problem once and for all. And they did it. But I doubt they're happy with the result.

They hoped to return with Chief Illiniwek on a pedestal. Instead, they came back with his head on a stick.

Call it Stuart and Ed's Excellent Adventure (hat tip to The News-Gazette's Jim Dey).

In May, UI trustees Stuart King and Edward McMillan traveled to Miami, Okla., to meet with the ancestors of the original Illinois (not Illini, a made-up name) Tribe, the very Native American people who once lived on the land now occupied by the UI at Urbana-Champaign. These are the very same people who Illinois' Chief Illiniwek was created to honor.

It's interesting how these Illinois Indians were discovered by the UI faithful. For many years, the UI had declared them extinct, supposedly wiped out by opposing Indians, thereby leaving the Chief Illiniwek fans guilt-free.

Then, in mid-1990, an enterprising Champaign TV news station, looking for a new angle on the Chief controversy, decided to seek out the opinions of the descendants of the Illinois Indians. And lo and behold, they were in fact alive. "We tracked them down," the TV story went. They were listed in the telephone book.

Now living in Oklahoma, what remained of the members of the various tribes that once made up the original Illinois had combined into a single tribe, the Peoria. Today, the Peoria Tribe is the only federally recognized tribe of the original Illinois. The Peoria are the Illinois Indians.

Their existence wasn't of any particular importance to the Illini faithful until 2005, when the NCAA announced sanctions against member schools with American Indian nicknames or mascots. But the NCAA later carved out an exception, allowing a school's namesake tribe to decide the ultimate fate of the school's nickname or mascot, done in recognition of tribal sovereignty. Therefore, as far as the NCAA is concerned, it's the Peoria, as this area's namesake tribe, who hold Chief Illiniwek's fate in their hands.

That set off a constant, relentless lobbying effort (a land grab?) by every imaginable Chief-loving constituency — fans, donors, boosters, alumni, former mascot portrayers — all to gain the Peoria's endorsement of Chief Illiniwek. The trip by UI trustees King and McMillan was just the latest effort.

Perhaps they didn't know any of that history when they set out on their mission. But when they arrived to discuss Illiniwek, the Peoria were prepared.

Instead of endorsing Chief Illiniwek, the Peoria responded by releasing the tribe's most absolute and damning statement ever regarding Chief Illiniwek.

It reads in part: "The image portrayed by Chief Illiniwek does not ... honor the heritage of the Peoria Tribe ... and is a degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all American Indian people."

It continues, "The Peoria Tribe of Indians does not endorse or sanction ... Chief Iliniwek as mascot for the University of Illinois, nor do they have any future plans to rescind the tribal resolution" — and then, just to twist the knife a little deeper — "which was approved by a unanimous vote."

And so the trustees were sent back home, the door being slammed shut and locked behind them. As far as the Peoria are concerned, discussions about Chief Illiniwek are over, for good.

What that means in Champaign is that any further debate about a future for the Chief is pointless and irrelevant. So are the opinions of the Honor the Chiefs, Save the Chiefs, Students for the Chiefs and the Councils of Chiefs, along with, especially, the local self-appointed native spokesmen, who always claim some vague and undocumented American Indian heritage, usually Cherokee (the REAL Cherokees of Oklahoma actually oppose mascots and the Chief).

And the UI's new 88-page "Critical Conversation Report"? Just more paper. The only opinion that counts is the Peoria, and they've made their final statement.

So, if Chief lovers want to hold a mock pow-wow outside the football stadium between the cornhole and the kegs, have at it. And if it makes Illini fans happy to keep throwing money at the Honor the Chief Society, then go ahead. I'm sure they're happy to take it. But it won't make a bit of difference.

If you want proof, just ask King and McMillan. They have Chief Illiniwek's death certificate, delivered to them courtesy of the Peoria. Finally.

Jay Rosenstein is the producer/director of the seminal documentary about American Indian mascots, "In Whose Honor?", and a professor of Media & Cinema Studies at the UI.

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