Smile Politely

A Chief Reinvention?

If you go to Wikipedia and type in “Council of Chiefs,” what you’ll find is a very brief entry on a “non-profit organization that was created in honor of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” At the bottom of the page, there are two suggested links: one to a site that hasn’t been updated since the mascot’s demise and the other to a Facebook group called “Save the Chief.”

Here’s how the group, which has 65 members, describes itself: “For everyone who thinks its [sic] extremely gay that they want to change our mascot to ‘THE ORANGE CRUSH’ or something else gay like it.”

The Facebook HQ for “Save the Chief” doesn’t appear to have been updated in nine months, which is surprising. Given the vehemence (albeit immature and crass) with which this crew seems to champion its cause, one would think it safe to assume that The Wall (for all of you unfamiliar with Facebook, that’s where messages are posted) would be lit up with notes of self-congratulations now that the Council of Chiefs has elected its newest member.

That’s right: At the end of April, after a round of tryouts, a new Chief was chosen. The winner, Logan Ponce, a junior at the University of Illinois, becomes the 37th Chief.

But because the Chief’s official affiliation with the university has been severed, the question becomes: What exactly does the Chief of today do? And why aren’t the enthusiasts on Facebook cheering and swapping virtual high fives now that Number 37 is in place?

At a press conference to announce Ponce’s new post, the departing Chief, Dan Maloney, pointed out that, even though the person who portrays the Chief no longer dances, he is more than a mere symbol for those wishing to resurrect the gameday spectacles that made the mascot known. One of the obligations of the contemporary Chief is to help raise ten grand for Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D.

And let’s be honest: That’s nothing to scoff at.

This raises the possibility that “the Chief” — as a functional position rather than a white-guy-decorating-his-face-with-war-paint-and-dancing-like-a- cartoon-character position — might actually have some relevance. Perhaps the resolution to this conflict (and yes, it is still an issue, given that in a referendum this spring, 79% of nearly 10,000 student voters called for the Chief’s return) is to encourage the Council of Chiefs to redefine its prized figurehead. Let him evolve and grow up. Put the Chief in a nice Bachrach suit. Send the Chief to a few dozen Native American charity and educational events each year. Have the Chief organize a conference. Allow the Chief to become an academic pillar befitting his roots. As a business might do, rebuild the ailing brand from the ground up — with substance, not feathers. This lets the proud legacy continue without the belittlement and discrimination that — whether intended or not — is unavoidable when someone dresses up and dances around like a caricature from another race.

The question, then, becomes this: Can the Chief, which has come to embody division as well as tradition at the University of Illinois, find a way to reinvent itself in the 21st century? — a reinvention that puts aside the race-as-mascot mentality and pushes forward with the stated intention of the Chief, which is to celebrate and bolster a tribe and, really, a civilization that has been dealt a rough hand in this nation. And if the feathers finally go away and this mission takes over, will the Facebook crew celebrate or will it simply deem this another “gay” move?

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