Tate: Chief lives on — just not at Illinois
Florida State has a terrific football program.
Just think, the Seminoles completed a 14-year stretch in 2000 with 152 wins and 19 losses (1 tie). An incredible run! There was more to Bobby Bowden than his Southern drawl. They’ve attended 31 straight bowl games since 1982 and were being wooed by every conference from the Big Ten to the SEC before electing to remain with their Atlantic Coast brethren.
The Florida State media guide hit the desk this week, nearly cracking it. The 212-page production must weigh a ton. I dropped it and broke three toes. Tried to pick it up and strained my back. It’s packed to overflowing with school and football information.
But take note: There are no athletes on the front cover, just a stunning, multi-dimensional hologram of a student representing Chief Osceola. There he is, rearing high on a gorgeous Appaloosa and wielding a feathered spear. And on the back cover, more Osceola. No coaches. Just barely a schedule at the bottom.
It is perplexing to have seen the University of Illinois, with the Native American derivation in its name (it is French for “warriors”), go through the painful dissolution of the widely revered Chief Illiniwek while Florida State pays such homage to its symbol.
Whereas the Seminole Tribe survived federal intervention (three wars in the 1880s) by retreating into the impenetrable Everglades, members of the Illini Confederation were displaced and scattered to the winds and, in some cases, are extinct. Florida State had in-state Native Americans with whom to reach an accommodation.
So, what the NCAA declared was “hostile and abusive” and “perpetuated stereotypes” at Illinois is deemed not only acceptable but glorified in Tallahassee.
As stated in the guide: “FSU is proud of its long-standing cooperative relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole people have suffered many hardships and injustices, but they have remained brave, dignified and proud. The Seminoles are unconquered. They symbolize what we hope will be the traits of all of our graduates, including our student-athletes.”
Thus, in a spectacular start to every game at Bobby Bowden Field, the packed stadium reaches a crescendo when a student in authentic Seminole regalia rides Renegade to midfield and plants a flaming spear. It started with Bowden in the late ’70s and is still going strong.
Music to their ears
We return now to Monday and our pre-scrimmage radio show in Rantoul. A former Chief took the microphone and was met by a crackling response from assembled fans. The portrayal has been banned since Feb. 21, 2007, and yet, for many loyalists, he remains the heart and soul of Illini athletics. That’s 61/2 years ago, when upcoming college sophomores were unknowing eighth-graders.
The Chief simply won’t go away. Displaying an aspect of their semi-rebellious nature, more than 11,000 UI students voted 4-1 in favor of the Chief last March.
Long-time supporters have persevered for a way to bring him back. At UI games, they see a dancing ghost in their mind’s eye as they rejoice to the strains of 3-in-1 music.
You may witness a day, not far distant, when tech-wise fans download the dance on iPads and watch a handheld performance while the Marching Illini band performs. It is that popular, that meaningful to loyalists.
Meanwhile, the Council of Chiefs and others, repeatedly rebuffed and most recently by chancellor Phyllis Wise, continue to work behind the scenes. They have selected a new student portrayer every year and formulated a plan, at one point reportedly supported by Oklahoma’s Peoria Tribe (an original in the old Illini Confederation), to return the Chief in a modest way with perhaps two annual appearances but no dances. However, Wise countered and contacted the Peoria Tribe, receiving a different response. She insisted that the Chief be “part of history, not the future.”
This merely forced proponents to retrace their steps to Oklahoma as they make another seemingly hopeless push for partial reinstatement. And they are encouraged by the continued popularity and the Florida State precedent indicating the NCAA will approve if a namesake tribe is supportive.
Noted Dave Wischnowski, writing for CBS in Chicago: “The Facebook page for Chief Illiniwek has 57,000 followers, over half as many as the university itself.”
Doesn’t sound like it’s going away, does it?
As we look back, what has Illinois gained by eliminating Chief Illiniwek six years ago?
First and foremost, the long-standing controversy was divisive — a constant distraction — to the point where it became a contentious part of every major UI board meeting. Something had to be done.
Second, the university was certified to host an NCAA tennis tournament this past spring and is available for various early-round events in other sports like volleyball and soccer. These would otherwise not be certified.
Third, the Chief had become an awkward aspect in dealing with faculty at other institutions. Some schools like Iowa and Wisconsin announced their unwillingness to schedule teams with Native American mascots, though this wouldn’t have affected scheduling mandated by the Big Ten Conference. But there was a distinct stigma that impacted the UI’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading public universities.
Fourth, there were what I would consider empty threats about challenging the UI’s bowl certification.
Human nature being what it is, you can’t tell someone else how to vote, who to love and how to pray. Some prefer country music, others like rock.
The Chief’s halftime appearance was, for some, a near-religious experience. What is an insult for one is a thrilling experience for another ... and in this case, an overwhelming majority of fun-loving Illini fans have been outmaneuvered by an intense minority.
It is not altogether unlike the situation in South Carolina where the NCAA refuses to hold any pre-scheduled tournaments because the Rebel flag still flies at the Statehouse. This is majority rule as displayed by popular support and a lopsided legislative vote. The flag is an affirmation of Southern pride to the majority but represents white supremacy to dissenters. When it waves, some see Southern independence while others see the first state to secede from the union.
When it was stated, “We don’t expect people from outside the state to understand the dynamic,” this could be applied to Chief Illiniwek as well. Here’s the difference. South Carolina is run by South Carolinians. They know their culture and are willing to suffer the consequences. At last report, the ACC moved baseball tournaments out of the state.
While president Bob Easter is an “Illinois man of long standing,” the UI has overwhelmingly been run by administrators and faculty members who had little or no background here, and by some Board of Trustees members who barely knew the campus before they were nominated. Wise’s decision is consistent with her upbringing.
Outsiders are not expected to comprehend. It is understandable that they view Chief supporters as rubes, and me as a nitwit for feeling their pain.
But how do you tell someone it’s wrong to take pride in something when they grew up with it and their heart swells with pride at each appearance? How do you tell someone how to vote, or what music to enjoy. Or who to love?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.