School Hears Calls to End Mascot's Act

University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek performs for the crowd last fall during a football game. The mascot  has been a controversial figure for years, but several recent developments could hasten his departure.
University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek performs for the crowd last fall during a football game. The mascot has been a controversial figure for years, but several recent developments could hasten his departure. (By Seth Perlman -- Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

URBANA, Ill., Feb. 1 -- The students and other supporters came by the hundreds Thursday, filling up the school's Foellinger Auditorium, rattling the walls with cheers and applause, and booing lustily at their outnumbered opponents.

But the rally had nothing to do with basketball or volleyball or any other sport. It centered on the beaded, buckskin regalia of Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot, or more pointedly on whether the chief is a tradition to be upheld or a dated and offensive stereotype.

"It's time for the chief to take a hike," said Loon He Flies Fast, a Chippewa from Wisconsin, addressing university officials and others who attended the rally organized by opponents of the mascot. "If the chief showed up at a sacred dance circle at any powwow in America, he'd be thrown out of that circle and asked to leave. It ain't Indian dancing, folks. It's a minstrel show."

The debate over the use of Native American mascots by U.S. colleges and professional sports teams has raged for decades. And the fate of Chief Illiniwek has been argued on the Urbana-Champaign campus for 18 years.

But two events are bringing the battle to a head here. The National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled in 2005 that the mascot is "abusive" and "hostile," and the university cannot host postseason competitions as long as it holds onto Chief Illiniwek. Equally important, the South Dakota-based Oglala Sioux tribal council and the grandson of the craftsman who sold the costume to the university have recently demanded that it be returned.

In 1982, during a trip to the Pine Ridge reservation, the school's former band director purchased the outfit from tribal elder Frank Fools Crow for $3,500. Fools Crow later presented the costume and smoked a peace pipe with school officials during a homecoming game.

But for some Native Americans, that history does not settle things. In December, a Cherokee activist and longtime mascot foe named Roger Fontana contacted friends on the Oglala Sioux tribal council. The council passed a resolution Jan. 18 demanding the return of the outfit.

"This was a 93-year-old man, who was destitute, and these people offer him the equivalent of probably a year's average income on the Pine Ridge reservation at the time," said Fontana, 51. "This was a priceless artifact; they ripped him off."

Fools Crow's headdress was in fact returned to the tribe in 1991, after university officials determined that the school could not legally possess the eagle feathers it contained.

Critics of the chief mascot also note that local Native American tribes would not have worn the feathers and buckskin more typical of Plains tribes like the Sioux.

"The people who were here had full body tattoos and scalp locks," a mostly shaved head with a tail, said Debbie Reese, a professor of American Indian studies at the university. "If they were going to do an authentic representation, no one would have wanted to be the mascot."

Jay Rosenstein, a journalism professor and producer of a documentary about the chief called "In Whose Honor," said the tribe's request undermines the mascot's validity.

"It explodes one of the last remaining myths that people who support the chief have been clinging to," he said. "The fact that Fools Crow had presented the regalia was mythologized as an endorsement by the entire Native American community. Now that has been destroyed."

The University of Illinois is one of only a few universities still using Native American mascots. Since complaints about the chief first arose in 1989, hundreds of faculty members and organizations including the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center have called for retiring the mascot.

But alumni and students, including a group of past mascots called the Council of Chiefs, have defended the icon, saying it is a revered symbol. The chief does not stand on the sidelines and cheer; he performs a four-minute dance routine during halftime.

"Everything we're doing is to honor and promote the culture," said Steve Raquel, the 1992-1993 chief.

Tension over the mascot has worsened recently. The university is investigating a student who posted a threat to "throw a tomahawk" in the face of a Native American activist. And professor emeritus Stephen Kaufman, a longtime critic of the mascot, complained to school officials about a Web posting warning Kaufman to "expect some burning crosses on your lawn."

On a recent afternoon, students crossing the campus said they did not want to promote racism, but felt that the chief was an honored symbol, not a demeaning one.

"If it offends people, we should take it away, but I don't think it's really that offensive," said Kayla Baker, 20. "It promotes our school spirit."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company