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Illiniwek fans insist story of the Chief isn’t over

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2007/12/illiniwek.htm l Originally posted: December 27, 2007 Illiniwek fans insist story of the Chief
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2007
      http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2007/12/illiniwek.htm
      l

      Originally posted: December 27, 2007

      Illiniwek fans insist story of the Chief isn’t over

      My original idea for today, in the spirit of those year-end,
      gone-but-not-forgotten roundups, was to kick the last bit of ceremonial
      dirt into the grave of Chief Illiniwek.

      Illiniwek, 80, was pronounced dead 10 months ago in Champaign.

      One of the few remaining costumed American Indian figures to dance around
      at big-time sporting events, the fictional Chief succumbed to a long
      illness that some diagnosed as chronic political correctness but that
      looked to me and others more like malignant cultural insensitivity.

      Either way, University of Illinois trustees, weary after two decades of
      controversy and under pressure from NCAA officials who had deemed the
      symbol “hostile and abusive” in imposing sanctions on the school, ordered
      that Illiniwek’s Feb. 21 appearance at a home basketball game be his last.

      A large media contingent gathered for the send-off. It included tearful
      lamentations and cries of “Save the Chief!” from those whose attachment to
      the symbol looked more like defiance than reverence; more like a desire to
      save their own prerogatives rather than a desire to honor native peoples.

      Time tends to kill such sentiment. Once a controversial nickname, mascot or
      symbol goes away, fans ultimately realize that the school or the team is
      not only still standing, but stronger—more unified, less riven by
      controversy and poisoned by ill-will and misunderstanding.

      When I went to update the Illiniwek story, at first it appeared that the U.
      of I. community had moved on quickly, in time for the Fighting Illini’s
      appearance in next week’s Rose Bowl: The Web sites of the Chief Illiniwek
      Educational Foundation, Students for Chief Illiniwek and Honor the Chief
      Society were inactive or outright dead.

      There wasn’t even anything new since spring at Retire the Chief.

      “The Honor the Chief Society and Students for Chief Illiniwek still exist,
      but we don’t hear much if anything from them,” wrote U. of I. spokesman Tom
      Hardy in response to my request for news. And the threat that alumni would
      withhold financial support in protest never materialized. In fact
      “donations are up in the past year,” he wrote.

      So...closure?

      No.

      “A lot of Chief apparel is seen on campus and at Memorial Stadium or
      Assembly Hall on game days,” Hardy wrote. “At halftime when the Marching
      Illini perform the three-in-one medley [of school songs], fans offer a
      rousing ‘Chief!’ cheer at the conclusion, as if they have just witnessed
      the Chief dance.”

      There was also a flurry of indignation and counter-indignation in October
      when the university, citing students’ rights to free expression, allowed
      Illiniwek imagery to appear in the school’s homecoming parade.

      Paul Schmitt, the U. of I. junior who heads up Students for Chief
      Illiniwek, told me not to be fooled by the lack of protests or Web
      activism.

      “We’ve been trying to stay under the radar,” he said. “We’re getting ready
      for our big push.”

      Nearly 100 supporters attend meetings, Schmitt said, and they’re planning
      to use “the element of surprise” in upcoming efforts (about which he would
      not be specific) to “bring back the Chief and restore his legacy as one of
      honor, not shame.”

      Honor the Chief Society co-founder Roger Huddleston, a retired businessman,
      was similarly emphatic but not as coy in describing the “far from dead”
      campaign to bring back the tradition that was born at halftime of a
      football game in 1926.

      He said his group has come to believe that pressuring U. of I.
      administrators is ineffective, and that the best strategy will be to work
      to change state law so that university trustees will be elected rather than
      politically appointed.

      Huddleston cited opinion polls showing overwhelming popular support for the
      symbol as a reason to believe voters would choose pro-Chief candidates to
      undo the work of the current board.

      “This is not just bluster, not just rah-rah,” he said. “People think we’ll
      get over it and go away. But we’re not over it, and we’re not going away.”

      This determination and hope look like denial to me, but it causes me to
      stay my foot at the side of the open grave. The Chief Illiniwek story is
      neither gone nor forgotten.

      Not yet.
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