Fighting for the Chief
A popular university athletics symbol comes under attack by people who say it demeans American Indians and feeds stereotypes, division and racism.
After much controversy, the university and state higher education officials begin a transition. But members of the Legislature step in and propose writing the much-revered, 80-year-old symbol into state law.
Proposals this week by members of the North Dakota Legislature to preserve UND's longstanding Fighting Sioux nickname and logo by burning them into state law -- or even the state Constitution -- bear similarities to maneuvering 15 years ago in Springfield, the capital of Illinois, and Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois and its "Fighting Illini" athletic teams.
The emotional national debate over the use of American Indian names and images as athletic nicknames, logos and mascots took center stage in Illinois in 1995, as a stylized "Chief Illiniwek" -- dressed, as it happens, in Sioux Indian garb -- continued to perform dances at home games of the Fighting Illini.
The Illinois Legislature approved that 1995 bill, making Chief Illiniwek "the state-anointed symbol" of the University of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reported, "saying it is a revered icon of the state's history and largest university."
But Gov. Jim Edgar demurred, casting an "amendatory veto" which stripped the legislation of its punch.
"Interference from governors and legislatures into the affairs of universities could take on even darker forms, such as direct intervention through state law into the content of academic programs," Edgar said in his veto message. "This governor does not want to take a step down that path, no matter how noble the intention or how appealing the cause of the moment."
The Illinois Legislature tried to override the governor's veto, but failed. Despite mounting protests and criticism, however, Chief Illiniwek continued to dance at Illinois football, basketball and volleyball games until 2007 -- when the university bowed to the same NCAA pressure that was brought against UND and other schools with American Indian nicknames and logos.
In North Dakota, three bills relating to the Fighting Sioux nickname have been introduced in the House of Representatives. They have been assigned to the House Education Committee, where a joint hearing will be scheduled.
Some legislators and others, including House members from UND's home base in Grand Forks, have signaled disappointment that the long-running controversy is to continue in Bismarck, while ardent nickname champions cheer one last attempt to preserve a cherished symbol.
Meanwhile, the officially sanctioned transition away from the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo continues at UND.
To Kansas, then on to Oklahoma
There was no real Chief Illiniwek.
The Illiniwek or Illini Indians were a federation of a dozen tribes, one of two groups of American Indians who lived in what is now Illinois at the time Europeans first made their way into the Great Lakes region, according to the Illinois State Museum's website.
They suffered heavy losses in conflicts with other tribes and from disease brought by white trappers and explorers, and survivors migrated to eastern Kansas. In the 1830s, their descendants were sent under the federal Indian Removal Act to what then was Indian Territory, today's Oklahoma, where they reside today as the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.
In 1926, an assistant band director at the University of Illinois arranged for a Native American war dance to be performed during halftime of Illinois' football game with Pennsylvania, according to a Wikipedia account based largely on Illinois state and university sources.
"At the conclusion of his performance, Illiniwek was met at midfield by a drum major dressed as the University of Pennsylvania's Quaker mascot, offered a peace pipe, and walked off the field arm in arm," according to that account.
In 1982, the Illinois marching band bought a new costume for the reigning "Chief Illiniwek" to wear during performances on the field. The costume was Sioux, provided to the university by Frank Fools Crow, chief of the Oglala Sioux. The Illiniwek and Sioux were unrelated.
Chief Illiniwek and his on-field performances, based on American Indian fancy dance, continued to be a matter of debate and protest. Some academic departments at the university called for the mascot's retirement. Several national organizations, including the NAACP, the National Education Association and the National Congress of American Indians joined in the call.
Another parallel to conflict over UND and the Fighting Sioux name and logo: Leaders of the Peoria tribe, the descendants of the Illiniwek, initially supported the mascot. "We're proud that the University of Illinois, the flagship university of the state, a seat of learning, is drawing on that background of our having been there," Peoria Chief Don Giles told an Illinois TV station in 1995.
Another Peoria elder, Ron Froman, agreed. Protesters calling for Chief Illiniwek's retirement "don't speak for all Native Americans, and certainly not us," he said.
Student groups, alumni and others rallied to the mascot's defense, and in 1995 the Legislature debated and passed that bill that would proclaim "the Chief" the university's "official symbol." With his veto, however, Gov. Edgar said the matter should remain with the university.
The NCAA enters
Pressure continued to build. In 2000, after he had been elected chief of the Peoria and had met with American Indian students attending the university, Froman changed his mind about the mascot. He called the dance performances "demeaning" and challenged defenders' claims that they were a way of honoring the Illiniwek people.
"I don't think it was to honor us," he said, "because, hell, they ran our (butts) out of Illinois."
In 2005, the NCAA issued its call for an end to "hostile and abusive American Indian nicknames," with the threat of sanctions to come for Illinois -- and UND -- among 18 targeted NCAA member schools.
Illinois, like UND, appealed and lost, though Illinois did get to continue using the name "Fighting Illini" after arguing that the name was derived from the state's name -- though the state was named for the river, which was named by French traders after the Illiniwek people.
In 2006, under increasing pressure, the university's Board of Trustees ordered a study and said it hoped to reach "a consensus conclusion" to the issue of Chief Illiniwek.
The decision to retire Chief Illiniwek came in early in 2007, and the Chief's last performance took place on Feb. 21, 2007, at the university's last home basketball game of the season. (Watch a five-minute video of the final performance at www.fightingillini.com/genrel/022107aaa.html).
In October 2009, the university quietly returned the Sioux regalia to the Oglala Lakota people of South Dakota. Other former costumes made by non-Indians are stored in a university museum.
The controversy over Chief Illiniwek's presence and role on campus has faded, said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs.
"It's getting to where it's not part of the tradition of our current students," she said. "But we certainly have many alumni for whom it's still dear."
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
VIDEO: Chief Illiniwek's last dance - 2007 (Illini Productions tribute video)