Adieu Chief Illiniwek

As the honored symbol of the University of Illinois and the State of Illinois’ most visible representation of its Native heritage, Chief Illiniwek has proudly and majestically represented the University and the State for over 70 years. The Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation strives to utilize the presence of Chief Illiniwek to promote greater education and awareness of American Indian people, culture, tradition, and history to the students, alumni, and friends of the University of Illinois.

from the Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation

On the morning of Friday, February 16th, University of Illinois Board chairman Lawrence Eppley announced the end of the racist “Chief Illiniwek” tradition. The “Chief” has served as the symbol and mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for eighty years. In 1989, a grassroots movement began for the complete elimination of the inappropriate tradition and the use of race-based imagery. After a long struggle, both the University’s academic and athletic credentials were challenged for carrying on such a tradition. Most recently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) put the University of a short list of schools who could not host post-season tournaments due to the NCAA’s restrictions on the use of Native American imagery.

from the Progressive Resource / Action Cooperative

Chief Illiniwek is an official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that has been associated with the University’s intercollegiate athletic programs since the Twenties, and will be retired after a final performance at a Men’s Basketball game on February 21 versus Michigan. The Chief has generally been portrayed by a white student dressed in Native American regalia who performs dances during halftime of Illinois football and basketball games, as well as during women’s volleyball matches (although three students of non white descent, Mike Gonzalez, and Johnny Saputo who are Latino and Steve Raquel who is of Filipino descent have also portrayed Illiniwek).

from Wikipedia, on February 17

I am not sure what could possibly be written about this issue, except maybe to be thankful that the entire thing is over. It has had a freakishly long run for something that ought to have been pretty obvious. I keep thinking of those “Inky Racer” ads that they still sell on Ebay. (You can find an image of one here, thanks to

The “Chief” came from the same noble-savage milieu that brought us the Boy Scouts, eugenics, and eventually the S.A.T. Personally, I saw the “Chief” perform once in person and calling his “traditional dance” weird is an understatement. The S.A.T. is on its last legs (yet standardized testing and its residual Eugenics has its own strange longevity), the Boy Scouts are homophobic, but at least the Chief will retire this week.

I have to say, though, the range of rhetoric generated in this debate is fascinating, from the banal education timber of the Foundation, to the collegiate left-righteousness of the Cooperative, to the bland neutrality of the sure-to-be-contentious Wikipedia article. And, of course, the story was apparently broken by a blog called

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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