Save the Last Chief Dance For the Memories


After two decades of debates and protests, the Chief Illiniwek issue was finally laid to rest by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees by announcing that the mascot/symbol will appear for the last time on Wednesday.  The Chief debate has always brought up a lot of mixed emotions for me.  As an Illinois student, I was a pretty strong Chief proponent that believed that it was as unique and special as any tradition in all of college sports.  Indeed, to this day, there are few moments that move me more than when the Chief raises his arms in the middle of the “Three-in-One” and the entire stadium sings “Hail to the Orange” in unison.  At the same time, I thought a number of special interest groups and politicians (Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones in particular) outside of the University of Illinois community used the Chief as a hot-button issue to propel themselves into the spotlight when it really had nothing to do with them.

However, in the wake of being removed from college for a few years, the Chief issue simply wore me down to where it just didn’t matter to me anymore.  All I wanted was for the story to go away so that it wouldn’t be rekindled every single fall when students came back to campus.  I also couldn’t stand the small yet extremely vocal group of Illinois alums that threatened at every turn to stop supporting the university both financially and emotionally if the Chief were to ever be removed.  There’s a whole lot more to being an Illini than the existence of the Chief, so I found these threats to be a sad indicator of the shallowness of a number of fellow alums.

When the NCAA announced last year that it would bar Illinois from hosting any national tournaments on campus as long as it allowed Chief Illiniwek to dance at halftime, it was only a matter of time before the announcement to end the tradition would come.  While a number of Illini fans argued that the Chief could be kept since the NCAA ban wouldn’t affect the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, the athletic department as a whole in its good conscience couldn’t effectively put an albatross on all of its other sports for the sake of a mascot/symbol.  The ability to remove the NCAA ban was reason enough alone for the U of I Board of Trustees to get rid of the Chief.

Regardless of whether the impetus for ultimate decision to remove the Chief was to bow to politically correct interest groups or a self-interested action to be in alignment with NCAA policy, the timing was right.  There will certainly be a lot of heavy hearts in the Assembly Hall in Champaign on Wednesday evening when the Chief appears for the final time.  In the end, however, the fight to keep Chief Illiniwek simply wasn’t worth the cost to the rest of the University of Illinois.

(Image from Washington Post)


10 thoughts on “Save the Last Chief Dance For the Memories

  1. Don

    Thank you, Frank.

    I thought Big Ten Wonk
    summed it up nicely as well:

    “So the Chief is through. Allow me to address the following to fellow U of I alums and current students—everyone else stay out of this for a second:

    I’m baffled at the fuss being made over this by people who didn’t go to Illinois. Truly. And I’m baffled by some of the reactions I’m seeing regardless of one’s alma mater. (Witness this odd piece by the usually sure-footed Mark Tupper, in which magnanimity is nominally prescribed but in the most querulous voice imaginable. This kind of total tonal subversion of the right words with combative bathos is truly Nixonian.)

    That being said, this day has been coming and indeed foreseeable for a long time. I don’t begrudge those who cherish their memories of the Chief—and those who do miss the mark badly.

    But if Lester Leutwiler appeared afresh and without preamble this afternoon and introduced this notion for the very first time, we would not, in 2007, choose this particular alternative. And now that it’s time to recognize that and jettison a longtime tradition, maybe it’s time as well to recall that this particular tradition was not part of what one might term the original orange and blue equipment.

    There was no Chief when Red Grange was at the U of I. There was no Chief when Bob Zuppke became the head football coach at the U of I. Memorial Stadium, the Quad, Altgeld, Foellinger, Lincoln Hall—all older than the Chief.

    And so, too, is the University of Illinois itself. It is older, larger, and better.


  2. Andy

    My grandfather and father took me to see my first Illinois football game when I was 10 or 11 and seeing the Chief is by far the most vivid recollection I have of that day. The loud crowd got very quiet and stood as the band started playing. My spine was tingling as the Chief appeared and did his routine and quietly disappeared again. It just seemed so surprisingly respectful and reverent – not something I was expecting at my first football game. Since then, as a student and alum, I have experienced the Chief’s performance countless times and always looked forward to a chance to expose someone else to the performance for the first time. Every time, I am asked how anyone could find bigotry or offensiveness in his performance and I am usually left without an answer. However, with today’s PC culture, I knew it was only a matter of time before the Chief was retired but I do regret that I will not be able to give my children the same experience I had.

    Further, I wonder who actually wins with this ruling – the Native American groups that have pushed for the Chief’s retirement now find their culture and name pushed even farther out of everyone else’s consciousness. While the dance and attire worn by the Chief may not have been completely authentic, the spirit and message of the Chief was one of respect for the past and for the almost-lost culture from which our state gets its name. My first experience of the Chief led me to choose to write my grade-school research paper on the Illiniwek tribe – however, without that exposure, I never would have even considered it. Sadly, I think that the recent decision by the Trustees was a cowardly move that, in the end, will lead to the further deterioration of our awareness of other cultures – done in the misguided name of “respect” and political correctness.


    1. ProudAnishinaabe

      A football game is not the time or place for Native American traditions. Native American culture is not dying out as media and your society would like you to believe, it is alive and well and evolving. Maybe you should do some up to date research since the last time you did any on ONE nation was in grade school.


  3. Steve

    I agree with the points made above. A point that Don makes that I’d never considered before is that the Chief would never be considered if it was brought up today. BUT, as Don speaks to the tingling you’d get when the Chief would come out. I got it just now as I watched a You Tube video of halftime. This was not Sparty waving from behind the basket during a free throw, this isn’t a blow up Herbie Husker bouncing around the field. This was 2 and a half minutes, only at home, that resulted in a great deal of pride being felt by students and allums.

    So how is the Indian culture going to be remembered as Don pointed out. Will it be as Casino owners at best, or as communities with prevalant drinking problems? How else is Indian culture portrayed in todays society? This was a great chance for the Indian community to work with the University to work towards portraying their community in a proud way. Soon we’ll just know them as the casino owners in that Simpson’s episode.


  4. andy, you said it beautifully. my memories of the chief dovetail with yours. i remember getting goosebumps the first time i saw him. he was solemn, noble… unlike the goofy mascots that litter other campuses, a figurehead to be revered. to me, he served as a nagging reminder that illinois had a history long before it had borders.

    and don, you make a good point. red grange did exist before all this. but you know what else existed? critical thinking. sadly, it seems that is disappearing along with the chief.


  5. Mike

    I think it is just rediculous that the NCAA and other “politically correct” people today just “make” themselves the self appointed spokes people of these American Indian tribes. If we get rid of the Chief, then why doesn’t Notre Dame get rid of their mascot? Isn’t it offensive to Irish people to say that the stereotypical Irish person gets in bar fights (Fighting Irish of Notre Dame)? I’m not Irish, but if I’m going to play the role of the NCAA, I can still protest, right? And also, “Fighting Illini” was not an American Indian tribe that was famous for warlike behavior. The word “Illini” means “someone born or living in Illinois.” This is why the U of I newspaper is called the “Daily Illini” (Iowa’s is called the “Daily Iowan”). “Fighting” was added after World War I to honor people from Illinois who faught and died in the Great War. Whose names do you think those are on Memorial Stadium’s outer wall? But besides that, why isn’t “Fighting Irish” offensive? Why isn’t Duke “Blue Devils” offensive? I’m a Christian, so I take offense to “Devils” being involved in sports. I’m making one big point here. If we get rid of the Chief, then the next step is to rename the states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, etc.). For the love of God, the NCAA is located in a city that is translated to “The City of Indians.” It’s just rediculous that the NCAA automatically assumes that American Indians are offended by Chief Illiniwek and other American Indian symbols/mascots. As Andy said, if we get rid of Chief Illiniwek, then we are making it even easier to forget Illinois’ and the United States’ American Indian heritage. Somehow Chief Illiniwek’s AUTHENTIC and RESPECTFUL American Indian dance is offesnive to American Indians, yet the NCAA calling someone REPRESENTING THEM “hostile and abusive.”

    SAVE THE CHIEF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  6. Dough Boy

    I believe in majority rule. If the majority of alumni and current students want to get rid of a 81 year old tradition, then so be it. The Chief is a symbol, NOT a mascot like the nut for Ohio State or the many rodents (i.e. badger, wolverine, gopher, etc.) we see just in the Big Ten (oops, eleven). If tradition be damned, then why keep other silly traditions like marriage, the rule of law, religion? What good are they to be kept around as well?

    If a majority of those with a vested interest (that being alumni and current students, no teachers, administrators or outsiders thank you) truly believe that it should go, then I will abide by their decision.

    But that won’t happen because only a minority of people want it to be withdrawn and the politically correct sheep out there just follow along. If it’s the right thing to do, then let the majority rule. Last time I looked, elections were won by a majority of a vote, not by some minority group whining and holding their breath until the politically correct jerks capitulate. I say enough of political correctness and minority “rule”. Let’s see what the Majority wants and go with their decision. Until then the Chief stays!

    Oh, and by the way, the action that the Executive committee took regarding the Chief, is not legal or binding, so officially the Chief is still the proud symbol of the University of Illinois.


  7. Seth!

    It’s difficult to add to the appropriate (if typo-riddled) comments above. The UofI trustees are a bunch of pussies who should be shot full of arrows. There was nothing wrong nor racist about the Chief as a symbol of our school. If the trustees can’t handle that, then they should be trustees at Pussy University, not U of I. The Chief will kick their asses because he stands for honor, tradition, and humanity–not caving to the lame-ass whims of a vocal minority. So, Frank the Tank, get some balls of your own and stand up for the Chief. To say that you are just too tired to care is a pussy attitude. I hope that the Chief kicks you out of the alumni organization. Go be an f-ing Buckeye, you sucker.


  8. Seth!

    Oh, maybe you went to Chicago Circle and aren’t a REAL Illini anyway. I hadn’t thought of that. UIUC, it’s the only REAL U of I. Chicagoland is full of pussies, even if it is one of the greatest cities in the U.S.


  9. Frank Denison

    Chief Illiniwek is gone. I missed the majesty and strength of the image att he games this fall. I feel the University of Illinois is poorer.

    We are now reminded of the proud Indian traditions by the accepted and honored pictures of drunks on reservation, idiots making chopping motions in Florida and, most modern and lofty, casinos. Maybe we can make big posters of those images and create clown like stuffed caricatures for the sidelines.

    I am not alone at feeling the loss. I cheered this fall when a professional football player asserted his college home was “Chief Illiniwek University”.

    To the NCAA and U of I Trustees: You have my bottomless bucket of contempt and disdain. With all of the serious problems of drugs and injury rampant in the atheletic programs you killed a noble symbol. Idiots!


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