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CHAMPAIGN — After all the pregame angst, a call to show support for the controversial Chief Illiniwek symbol at Thursday's Illinois-Purdue men's basketball game was fairly uneventful.

The "Paint the Hall Chief" event drew extra Chief shirts in the crowd, some pro-Chief flyers, 40 protesters outside and a prank, but no appearance by the Chief.

Event organizers had asked Illini fans to wear Chief apparel to the game. Anti-Chief activists, who consider it a racist mascot, organized a protest and called on UI officials to cancel the event.

The current Chief portrayer, Omar Cruz, was at the game but did not don his costume and appear at halftime, as he has for other games.

"We never had any intention of making an appearance," said Ivan "Alex" Dozier, a former Chief portrayer and board member for the Honor the Chief Society, which promoted the event.

Instead, Dozier ducked into a bathroom where the Chief usually changes and came out wearing an orange boa and sunglasses. He then took a photo with Raneem Shamseldin, president of Illinois Student Government, who had gathered nearby with other protesters in case the Chief appeared.

"I think it was great," Shamseldin said afterward. "Mission accomplished — no Chief."

Before the game, about 20 protesters stood on each side of the main entrance of the State Farm Center, chanting and holding anti-Chief signs such as "Real people, not symbols."

Eric Schacht of Champaign held a megaphone and led chants, including "The Chief is racist," as Illini fans — and some puzzled Purdue fans — streamed into the game.

"I've lived in Champaign my whole life and I'm an alumnus of the law school," Schact said. "I used to think the Chief was cool, but then I realized it didn't matter what I thought. It matters how the people who are offended feel."

Brian Green, a fan dressed in a Chief shirt, couldn't disagree more.

"At this point, we just have a block 'I' as our mascot," he said. "I need more than that."

Kathy and Dan McKenzie, who drove the car carrying Chancellor Robert Jones that anti-Chief activists blocked during the UI homecoming parade in October, said while they couldn't support the Chief at the parade, they'll always wear their Chief gear to games.

"I do not at all see him as a racist symbol," Kathy McKenzie said. "We've seen the Chief dance and I get emotional when I see it because it's so respectful. To us Chief supporters, we won't go down without a fight."

A group of students from Miami University in Ohio who were attending a engineering conference at the UI were confused about the hubbub as they headed to the game. Until mid-1997, they pointed out, their university had a Native American nickname — the Redskins. At the urging of an Oklahoma-based member of the Miami Tribe, the name was changed to the RedHawks, as it remains today.

Inside, the UI chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative political group, distributed orange flyers with the Chief logo to fans, who held them up during an early timeout. The group had printed 500, but at least 200 were confiscated by State Farm Center staff, said group member Joel Valdez. State Farm Center's policy doesn't allow fans to bring signs, banners or flags into the game.

A notice reminding fans of that rule, and asking them to be courteous to others, was taped onto all the seats in the lower seating area. It asked fans to conduct themselves with "honor, dignity and respect" and "treat others the way you would like to be treated."

Members of the Orange Krush student fan group wore a variety of orange T-shirts, but not an unusual number with the Chief logo. Section leaders Daniel Friedman and Will Smith said there was no official communication to members to wear Chief apparel.

As the first half ended, the band immediately began playing the Three-in-One halftime music, which includes the Chief's former dance music. That music is normally played after the halftime show.

Some fans looked around the arena to see if the Chief might appear and yelled "Chieeef!" as usual when the music ended.

But they shouted louder at the announcement that the Illini's three-pointer at the halftime buzzer had been waved off because time ran out.

UI officials monitoring the crowd reported no incidents at the game.

"I'm really proud of the way our students handled themselves at halftime," said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

Dozier said he was pleased with fans' response to the event, saying "when it comes to supporters versus protesters, it's hundreds to handfuls."

Shamseldin called the protest "a huge success."

"Our point was to ensure that the Chief stops attending events," she said, as Native American students don't feel comfortable going to games where the Chief appears.

Protester Lauren Kirby, a UI junior in communications, said she and other Native Americans do not support the Chief. She said the people who should be honored are those with ancestral claims to this land, the Peoria tribe of Oklahoma Indians.

"The university's decision to remove the symbol of Chief Illiniwek was in 2007, yet we still see the Chief all over campus and at university-affiliated events," she said. "I don't think that's right. ... I think we need a new mascot and I think this needs to be resolved by the administration."

While the discussion with a few Chief supporters grew heated, Shamseldin said, most fans just walked by and some stopped to talk.

"A lot of people got our message than Native American imagery needs to be shared in an non-racist way," Shamseldin said.

Emily Kerlin, a UI graduate and teacher who grew up in Champaign-Urbana, said she joined the protest because she's weary of the debate.

"The NCAA has ruled that this is not an acceptable mascot. This has been drawn out way longer than it should have been. I'm all for tradition, but when tradition bumps up against what's socially just, what makes sense," she said, then it's time to change.

"So many other universities have gotten rid of these mascots. We're just dragging our heels — for what reason, I don't know. But it's time to get rid of it."

Graduate Employees Organization Co-President Gus Wood said he wanted to "stand up against racial humiliation" of Native Americans. He said the Chief is a dehumanizing symbol and compared Thursday's protest to the struggle between the GEO and the university.

"It's a sign that the university is ignoring people on campus," he said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).