This past spring, two U of I Trustees set out on a secret mission to solve the seemingly endless Chief Illiniwek problem once and for all. And they did it. But I doubt they’re happy with the result.
They hoped to return with Chief Illiniwek on a pedestal. Instead, they came back with his head on a stick.
Call it “Stuart and Ed’s Excellent Adventure” (hat tip to the News-Gazette’s Jim Dey). On May 11, according to a news report, U of I trustees Stuart King and Edward McMillan set out on a top-secret journey to the exotic wilds of Miami, Oklahoma. It’s there that live the remains of the original Illinois (not Illini, a made-up name) Tribe, the very Native American people who once lived on the land now occupied by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These are the very same people who Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek is supposed to honor.
It’s an interesting story how these Native Americans, the Peoria Tribe, were discovered by the U of I faithful. For close to seventy years, beginning sometime after the Chief’s first appearance in 1926, the University of Illinois declared the Illinois Indians extinct. As part of the Chief Illiniwek creation myth, the tribe had been wiped out by other opposing Indians, thereby leaving the white Chief Illiniwek fans with clean hands, and their Indian fantasies guilt free.
But, of course, the reality was very different. The Illinois Tribe was a loose confederation that included the Peoria and several other tribes (there is disagreement about the exact number). What is agreed is that the Illinois were forced out of Illinois by the federal Indian Removal Act, eventually settling in what is now Oklahoma, where they live today. Once in Oklahoma, what remained of the members of the various tribes that made up the original Illinois combined into one single tribe, the Peoria.
Today, the Peoria Tribe is the only federally recognized tribe of the original Illinois. The Peoria are the Illinois Indians.
In mid 1990, an enterprising Champaign TV news station, looking for a new angle on the Chief Illiniwek controversy, decided to seek out the opinions of the descendants of the Illinois Indians about the Chief. And, lo and behold, despite the U of I having long ago left them for dead, they were in fact alive. “We tracked them down,” the TV story went. They were listed in the telephone book.
And that’s how the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma was discovered by the University of Illinois community. Their existence wasn’t of any particular importance to Fighting Illini fans until 2005, when the NCAA announced it would sanction member schools with American Indian nicknames or mascots. But the NCAA later carved out an exception, allowing a school’s namesake tribe to decide the ultimate fate of the school’s nickname or mascot. It was done in recognition of the fact that tribes are sovereign nations (a concept Illiniwek fans find impossible to grasp, as evidenced by their endless whining about the “hypocrisy” of Florida State University being allowed to continue as the Seminoles). Therefore, as far as the NCAA is concerned, it’s the Peoria, as the area’s namesake tribe, who hold Chief Illiniwek’s fate in their hands. And so the lobbying of the Peoria Tribe by the lovers of Chief Illiniwek began. Since then, there’s been a consistent, relentless effort by every imaginable UI sports constituency—fans, donors, boosters, alumni, former Chief mascot portrayers—to gain the Peoria’s endorsement of Chief Illiniwek.
Perhaps UI Trustees King and McMillan didn’t know any of that history when they set out on their mission. Perhaps they did, but assumed none of it mattered, given their position within the University of Illinois system. Or perhaps it was just the natural hubris of the white American male, thinking, “how hard could this be?”—you barter a little with the natives and come back as conquering heroes, forever hailed by the Fighting Illini Nation.
Only, it didn’t work out that way. Unfortunately for the trustees, this wasn’t the Peoria’s first contact with Chief Illiniwek devotees.
It would be too easy and too cliché to characterize the trustees’ trip into the heart of Indian country to rescue Chief Illiniwek as General Custer riding into Little Big Horn. So I won’t. But I just did.
Instead of endorsing Chief Illiniwek, the Peoria responded by releasing the tribe’s most absolute and damning statement ever regarding Chief Illiniwek. It reads, in part: “The image portrayed by Chief Illiniwek does not … honor the heritage of the Peoria Tribe … and is a degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all American Indian people” (emphasis mine).
It continues, “The Peoria Tribe of Indians does not endorse or sanction … Chief Iliniwek as mascot for the University of Illinois, nor do they have any future plans to rescind the tribal resolution,” and just to twist the knife a little deeper, “which was approved by a unanimous vote.”
And that’s the sound of the trustees being sent packing, the door being slammed shut and locked behind them. As far as the Peoria are concerned, discussions about Chief Illiniwek are over, for good.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the trustees had to return home carrying Chief Illiniwek’s death certificate, they suffered a second indignity when their secret trip was exposed by a reporter. That’s when the U of I PR spin machine spun into action.
The trip wasn’t “an effort to get the Peoria to endorse reinstating Chief Illiniwek,” read one report; it was a “’fact-finding trip’ to ‘discuss any areas of mutual interest.’” Sure.
But the most telling explanation was that their discussion covered “a number of topics, including trying to find some ‘middle way’ forward on the Chief debate.” Except the Peoria aren’t in need of a “middle way forward,” since the Peoria aren’t having a “Chief debate.” It couldn’t be any more clear: the trustees were there to bring back Chief Illiniwek. Instead they got shown the door.
With the Peoria now ending all discussions about a future for Chief Illiniwek, the U of I can shut down all the “campus conversations” in order to include everyone from all sides equally (reminiscent of Charlottesville: “there’s good people on both sides”). The opinions of the Honor the Chiefs, the Save the Chiefs, the Students for the Chiefs, and the Councils of Chiefs are completely irrelevant. So are the opinions of people from the mostly white area towns, such as Monticello, who claim some vague, mysterious, and undocumented American Indian heritage (which is always Cherokee). The local media too need to get educated and stop including them in an effort to appear “unbiased.”
So, if Chief lovers want to hold a mock pow-wow in the football parking lot between the kegs and the cornhole, have at it. And if it makes Illini fans happy to keep throwing their money at the Honor the Chief Society, then go ahead. I’m sure they’re happy to take it. But it won’t make a bit of difference.
With the Peoria declaring Chief Illiniwek dead and buried, the only way for Chief lovers to restore him to his former glory is to move to another school, in another state, with another tribe. Good riddance.
Jay Rosenstein is the producer/director of the seminal documentary about American Indian mascots, “In Whose Honor?,” and a professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois.