Smile Politely

How to solve the Chief Illiniwek problem for the next Chancellor

Editor’s Note: This letter has been updated since the original piece published, though the minor changes to not alter the overall tone and direction of the piece.

Dear President Killeen,

Soon we will be selecting the 10th full-time Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana. The new Chancellor will be facing a vast array of challenges, both those currently known and unknown. 

It is a difficult enough job under even the very best of circumstances. Therefore, we owe it to our next leader not to saddle him or her with divisive issues that should have been settled long ago, particularly those over which we have complete control to end.

And the primary issue that falls into that category is Chief Illiniwek.

The existence and the remnants of the race-based former mascot/symbol of UIUC sports, Chief Illiniwek, has significantly hampered and negatively impacted the terms of the past four Chancellors, sometimes with extremely damaging results. 

One in particular stands out.  Because of the Chief Illiniwek issue, in 2001 then Chancellor Nancy Cantor found herself the target of a nasty harassment campaign, with multiple billboards placed all around Champaign-Urbana demanding that she leave.

Having plenty of other employment options and not wanting to endure this harassment of her and her family, Cantor left two years later and is now the successful Chancellor of Rutgers University.

We have to make certain that another Chancellor won’t have to endure a situation like that again.  Although this was an extreme case, I am certain that every one of the last four Chancellors, including Barb Wilson, would tell you that they have had to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy having to manage the Chief Illiniwek issue.

Although Chief Illiniwek was officially “retired” in 2007 in order to comply with NCAA rules, anyone visiting the UIUC campus would hardly know that he is gone.  The campus is filled with T-shirts and apparel, wall decorations, and signs on and in businesses and campus buildings containing not only images of Chief Illiniwek, but all sorts of stereotyped American Indian images, many containing feathers and headdresses, both of which are sacred items to many Native Americans. 

Some items even use those sacred symbols to promote alcohol and binge drinking.













But perhaps the worst of it is what continues to happen at Illinois sports events, particularly, but not limited to, football and men’s basketball games. It is as if the Chief never left.

When the Chief’s theme music is played at halftime, students and other spectators fold their arms in front of them, mimicking the Chief’s imagined movements, holding that pose while yelling “Chief!” — an action so blatantly racist that we doubt any would have the courage to do in the face of an actual American Indian. It is an embarrassing display of ignorance.

So how did we get here? Dozens of other universities have eliminated their Native American mascots, logos, and nicknames — from Stanford, Oklahoma, and Dartmouth in the early 1970s, to the University of Southern Colorado and Miami of Ohio University in the mid 1990s, to the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the College of William and Mary in the 2000s — yet none of those schools have suffered from the continuing presence and conflict from their former symbols like Illinois.

The reason is simple: in every one of those cases, the decision to change was done swiftly and decisively, leaving no wiggle room for the possibility of a return of the former nicknames or mascots.

At every one of those schools, the administrative leader made a strong and unequivocal statement to the campus and community that the former Native American symbols, mascots, or nicknames were no longer appropriate, and the schools were moving on.

This has NEVER been done at the University of Illinois. B. Joseph White, the President at Illinois in 2007, stated that UIUC was dropping Chief Illiniwek only because of the NCAA, and that there was nothing wrong or offensive about the Chief. That is why the issue continues to fester and remains unresolved.  

In order for our new Chancellor to be successful, this issue needs finally to be put to rest. You, President Killeen, can do that by making a decisive statement to the campus and community that we are permanently and forever moving on from the former symbol, and WHY it is necessary to do that. 

This is the perfect time for such a statement. With a new Athletic Director coming on board, we are embarking on a new era and new beginning for UIUC athletics. The new era can only begin when the inappropriate remnants of the past have been permanently locked into the past where they belong.


The following actions need to be done to clean up the campus of this unresolved problem:

  • Make a statement to the campus and community, stating that although Chief Illiniwek was created with the best of intentions in 1926, it is of a bygone era, and the world has changed. In 2016, Chief Illiniwek is insulting and offensive to Native Americans and an inappropriate symbol, particularly and especially for a public university. It belongs in the past and will not be returning.
  • Commit to a process and timeline for the adoption of a new mascot and theme music.
  • Require the band to stop playing the “3 in 1” music, which is essentially the Chief’s theme music, at all sporting events.
  • Require the band to stop playing the song “War Chant”, which is a Hollywood stereotyped, tomahawk chop like music meant to imitate American Indian music and drumming.
  • Ask the student body and university community not to make or buy apparel with Native American imagery, feathers, and headdresses, particularly those made for Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day or relating to alcohol. Explain how feathers and headdresses are sacred items to many Native Americans.
  • Although it is necessary to continue to sell merchandise with the Chief Illiniwek logo in order to maintain the University’s control over the trademark, research and implement ways to minimize the sale of this merchandise while still fulfilling the obligations required to maintain a trademark.

President Killeen, it is time for the leader of the University of Illinois to step up and put an end to this issue for the good of campus, the community, the state, and especially, the new Chancellor. Thank you.

All photos © 2016 jay rosenstein.

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