Student referendum attempts to gauge support for retired symbol; some see new mascot as a way to more forward
URBANA — When Chief Illiniwek was officially retired in 2007, only the uninitiated thought the argument was over.
The UI has since tussled with Chief supporters and opponents over the use of the name "Chief Illiniwek," the official Chief logo, the costume and the "Three-in-One" music.
Chief portrayer Ivan Dozier and his predecessors have attempted to keep the tradition alive, staging events like "The Next Dance" and appearing in the crowd at UI football and basketball games and high school dances. Fans still stand and clap during the nonexistent Chief's music at halftime.
Chief opponents, meanwhile, complain that the UI hasn't done enough to uphold its own policy or stop unauthorized use of the Chief's likeness outside the university.
UI students are preparing to take yet another advisory vote on the issue this week — specifically, whether they support the Chief as the official symbol for the campus — in response to a contest for a new mascot by a student group called Campus Spirit Revival.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise said she will be interested to hear student opinion on both fronts, but she and other UI leaders emphasize one point: The Chief will stay retired.
"It's pretty clear that both the board of trustees and the NCAA said that the use of Chief Illiniwek as a symbol for the University of Illinois is not approved if we want to be involved in postseason play. And so my view is that we are not going to bring back the Chief," Wise said last week.
"I am willing to acknowledge that he was part of our tradition, he was part of our history, that there are many people who spent time at Illinois and who are part of our community who really revered him. Maybe that's appropriate for that time, but you cannot go backward."
After years of pressure, the UI Board of Trustees officially voted in March 2007 to end Chief Illiniwek's dance and the use of the Chief or any Native American imagery for the university or its athletic programs. The NCAA had previously barred the UI from hosting postseason tournaments as long as it used Native American imagery.
Josh Good, the student who pushed to get the Chief question on the ballot this week, is confident students will vote in favor of the Chief, but he is also realistic about the symbol's fate. His intent was twofold: to ensure that "students' voices are heard" and stop any effort to create a new campus mascot.
Campus Spirit Revival should have first determined whether there is popular student sentiment for a new mascot before seeking a campuswide vote on the various contest entries in late January, he said.
Good also challenged the Illinois Student Senate's co-sponsorship of the contest, saying it conflicted with bylaws requiring the senate to abide by the results of student referendums. In 2008, students voted by a wide margin in favor of the Chief as the UI symbol.
Student Trustee David Pileski, who led senate support for the contest, said he saw it as a way to help the campus move on from the long fight over the Chief and enhance the campus experience.
Thomas Ferrarell of Campus Spirit Revival said the group wanted to identify creative student ideas for a mascot first and use that as a basis for a dialogue on how to move forward.
"There is no denying our past mascot was controversial and divisive," Ferrarell said, and a new mascot could help "bridge that rift."
Wise said there are no current efforts by the university to develop a new mascot, and the campus hasn't tried to encourage or prevent the student effort.
"It's really a student issue. We are not involved," she said.
Good, a veterinary medicine student who also holds a UI bachelor's degree, said he doesn't believe a majority of alumni or current students will clamor for a new mascot any time soon, though he doesn't discount it down the road.
He argued that having no mascot benefits both sides of the Chief debate. Those who felt the Chief was demeaning or disrespectful to Native American culture are happy because the campus no longer uses the mascot, he said, and those who see the Chief as representing the university "can still hold on to that unofficial symbol in their hearts."
"To replace that with some mascot just for the sake of having a mascot is unnecessary and I believe is disrespectful to the traditions of Illinois," he said.
Renewed Chief interest?
UI alumnus Steve Raquel of the Council of Chiefs — former students who served as Chief Illiniwek — finds the recent student interest in the issue encouraging. He likens it to a "revival" after a waning of Chief support on campus for several years after its retirement. He was surprised the Chief question found enough signatures to get on the ballot.
"Whether they support the dance aspect of it, they support what the Chief represented and the good that it did," said Raquel, 42, who owns a marketing consulting firm in Chicago.
He also noted that the trustees and administrators who made the decision in 2007 are no longer at the university. Chief supporters are planning to step up their activities this spring. Dozier, the current Chief portrayer, plans to hold tryouts this semester for a successor and said he's already had several people sign up. Dozier and his assistant, Katie Birkel, are both seniors, though Dozier may return for graduate school next year.
"I think there's an opportunity to bring the tradition back in a way that's a win-win for the university and the alumni," Raquel said.
Wise said she hasn't heard any proposals from the group. The chancellor said she would listen to ideas about "ways to remember" the Chief but stressed that the campus can't return to the past.
She called it a distraction that would "hurt us in terms of being able to compete effectively with the Berkeleys, the Stanfords, the Michigans, the Harvards of this world."
"The global competition is huge. We have to find ways to unite and go forward and embrace the fact that change is happening, and that for this university to remain great and get even greater, we have to put all of our efforts into moving forward," she said.
Protecting the trademark
Chief opponents, meanwhile, argue that the UI hasn't done enough to stop unauthorized use of the Chief's likeness or educate the community about the issue.
"Certainly this crop of students are going to be voting on an issue that they're concerned with without information. They're unaware of why the university came to the conclusion to cease the Illiniwek tradition," said retired UI Professor Stephen Kaufman, a longtime Chief opponent.
Kaufman wrote to Wise and other UI officials in recent weeks complaining about a performance by Dozier at Hoopeston High School's homecoming on Jan. 26. It was originally billed as a performance by Chief Illiniwek.
According to a YouTube video, Dozier did virtually the same routine that the Chief formerly performed to the UI's traditional "Three-in-One" music.
UI officials subsequently asked Hoopeston not to use the name "Chief Illiniwek" and to remove any affiliation with the UI, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
The trustees's resolution in 2007 directed "the immediate conclusion to the use of Native American imagery as the symbol of the University of Illinois and its intercollegiate athletics along with the related regalia, logo and the names Chief Illiniwek and Chief."
UI officials said they can police the name and image of Chief Illiniwek, including the official logo, but dances and costumes are forms of free expression protected by the First Amendment.
Throughout the Chief's history on campus, the dance evolved with each Chief portrayer, Kaler said. Even if someone dresses in a Native American costume and does some of the same steps, "there's no single Chief dance. There's nothing you could really legally protect."
The "Three-in-One" music is copyrighted, but Dozier said he bought an official CD of the music for his portrayals. He and Raquel said they have been careful to respect the university's copyright protections.
Dozier said he continues to portray the Chief as a "bridge to education" about Native American culture and to prevent "imposters" from misusing the Chief. Whoever is chosen by the Council of Chiefs "knows the history, knows the culture, can guide it in a certain direction," said Dozier, who said he is part Native American.
The unofficial Chief
In a separate letter to UI officials last week, Kaufman complained that continuing to sell "race-based clothing" and other items violates the university's own policy and NCAA directives and undermines its educational mission.
Among myriad "Unofficial St. Patrick's Day" T-shirts on sale in recent weeks — not authorized by the UI — was one depicting the Chief with beer bottles around his head instead of feathers.
Freshman Holly Bass, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation and the Native American and Indigenous Students Organization on campus, said the shirts played into offensive stereotypes of Native Americans. She isn't personally offended by the Chief itself but said students don't understand the history behind it or why some object to it.
"That's why I think we should push people being more educated about it," she said.
The UI stopped sales of the shirt once officials became aware of it, along with another that was questionable, Kaler said. It's been a perennial problem with Unofficial, she said, and the university acts as soon as it's aware of violations of any trademark, such as the "Block I" logo or even "The University of Illinois."
But Kaufman points to websites that sell unapproved merchandise titled "Chief Illini" or with other American Indian likenesses. The "cafepress" site last week featured a button saying, "Scalp 'em Fighting Illini."
Kaler said policing logos and trademarks is a challenge for any large organization. She estimated the issue arises at least once a week, though problems with the Chief logo are less frequent.
"Ninety-nine times out of 100 when we ask, people stop," she said, and if they don't, UI lawyers follow up.
Kaufman and other Chief critics said it's an ongoing problem that will remain as long as the UI keeps vestiges of the Chief. If the Chief is offensive, Ferrarell said, then so are its dances, chants, music and merchandise.
"I would just like them to do what they're supposed to do," Kaufman said.
UI student ballot
Do you support Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?
Student will be voting Tuesday and Wednesday.
Also on the ballot:
— Candidates for Illinois Student Senate, SORF Board and student trustee.
— Referendum on a $25-a-semester fee increase for the Assembly Hall.
— Referendum on the $2-a-semester fee for the Collegiate Readership Program.
— Referendum on the $17.28-a-semester fee for the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.