The Chief: An unspoken presence Part IV

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  • Portrait of Ivan Dozier as the unofficial chief.

  • Members of Illinois’ student section, Block I, cheer on the Fighting Illini during their game against Nebraska on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois won 14-13.

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By Annabeth Carlson

Chris Castle is tired.

It’s not that he’s given up, but he’s done it too many times.

On any given day, during his walk to class or stroll through a hallway he’ll see someone wearing a Chief shirt. He knows they’re not bad people. And they’ll usually stop wearing an image of the Chief if he approaches them and talks about the impact this has on him, as someone of Cherokee heritage, and others in the Native American community.

But Castle can’t stop everyone he sees.

As one of very few Native American students at the University, the president of the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization and a senior in ACES, he’s busy. He also loves the University, and he doesn’t want his college memories to consist of only upset caused by the Chief.

“I get this drained, tired feeling because I’ve done this so many times and at the same time that I’m proud to share accurate information with people. I also think that it is an unnecessary and unreasonable expectation put on an undergraduate student while I’m also going through science courses,” Castle said.

And for Megan McSwain, a graduate student in ICR who is of Navajo heritage, the only way to accurately honor Native American heritage is to stop using the Chief to do so.

“I don’t understand how it could be acceptable for any culture or ethnicity to be paraded around like a caricature at any event,” McSwain said. “If they were really wanting to honor Native Americans, I would think they would try to make some effort to educate themselves on not just Native Americans in this umbrella form, but recognizing and acknowledging specific Native American tribes because there are more than 500 in America alone and yet you find people that can’t name five of them.”

But for so many others who are simply not willing to let go of the nearly century-old University mascot and symbol — despite its 2007 ban — the controversy of the Chief comes down to an issue over personal liberty.

But what are the implications?

Though people have the right to support the Chief, whether it’s by wearing a t-shirt with Native American imagery or yelling “Chief” during the “Three-in-One” at school sporting events, sociology professor Cynthia Buckley said the retired symbol’s presence impacts the social and racial climate on campus.

For instance, on Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, Buckley saw students wearing sweatshirts that depicted a headdress made out of beer bottles.Though students were not wearing the shirt for racist reasons, she thinks they should still consider the impression they make.

“What do my actions look like to others? What are the signals I’m sending?” Buckley said. “People get very agitated, and they lose sight of the fact that it is not just a debate about tradition; it is a debate about our identity, our membership in the NCAA and it’s also a really strong indicator of what we value as a University.”

Buckley explained that the climate is not great for minorities like Native American students. According to the latest report by the Division of Management Information, the University only had 37 self-reported Native American students this semester.

“When the numbers are so low … It makes it very unwelcoming in terms of feeling that you have the right to publicly talk about your reactions and your perceptions,” she said. “It’s just very challenging in this enormous place for anybody to speak up.”

Castle said for most Native American and indigenous students, speaking up is hard to do.

Without his past experience, Castle said he wouldn’t be able to speak up against the Chief now. As he is also Korean, growing up in a predominantly white community where the high school mascot was the “Chinks,” sent him into an identity crisis. It was not until he was stationed in South Korea in the Air Force that he recovered his identity.

“I had already been able to gain the confidence to express myself, to gain the confidence to approach people that were demeaning my heritage or asking questions that are inappropriate to ask a native person,” he said. “If I didn’t have that experience in high school, I probably wouldn’t have the tools but most of our native students here do not have those tools to deal with that level of systemic discrimination.”

The impact of sports on social movements

Buckley explained that the controversy around the Chief relates to similar conflicts, like the protests of the student group Concerned Student 1950, which led to the resignation of the several University of Missouri officials, like the president and chancellor. She said colleges and universities often put the most emphasis on sports teams and mascots, as it took the strike by the Mizzou football team to finally affect change on their campus.

“We over-identify with sports teams and mascots, and we under-identify with core values like knowledge and reason, and this manifests itself in the hostility about mascots and the centrality of that,” she explained. “But it also manifests itself in the terms of racial protests. As soon as a football team gets involved, well then we’re all set.”

This also reflects the 2007 NCAA ban, which led to multiple teams changing their Native American nicknames, mascots and imagery, so they could host postseason games.

Alex Villanueva, senator for the Illinois Student Senate, ISS, and junior in LAS, who is helping lead the effort to potentially introduce a new school mascot, wrote in an email that a new mascot could help solve the Chief controversy for good.

“We can end a racial argument that has been had for over 40 years. It will better the racial climate; our American Indian students who are hurt when they see a Chief shirt or even the costumed ‘unofficial chief’ will finally have some closure,” he wrote. “It will also serve as a symbolic moment to show that ‘Yes, these racial questions divide us, but we can overcome.’”

However, this is not old news for many. In 2005, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution saying that American Indian mascots in sports have a negative impact on American Indian children, and they recommended the immediate retirement of these mascots and imagery by all schools, teams and organizations.

Thereza Lituma, a freshman in Education who is of indigenous heritage, said she has never attended a football game at the University.

“I’ve never gone because it’s something I know would make me very upset and I don’t want to feel like I have to go somewhere where I’m trying to have a good time and want to have to defend something,” she explained.

McSwain said she fully supports introducing a new mascot.

“If it was something other than the block letter “I,” then that would render the Chief mascot completely obsolete and I think people would have something more in common and to cheer for,” she said.

Unanswered questions

As the University approaches almost a decade of conflict with the Chief, Buckley believes it is time to move on. However, she recognizes that this won’t be simple.

“I think that by having this long, drawn-out fight back and forth, it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” she said. “It leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”

Frederick Hoxie, a Swanlund professor of History who has conducted research on Native American history, said one of the continued issues with the Chief is that the University never made an official statement on the matter when it was banned in 2007.

Recently, Hoxie said a group of senior members of departments across the University sent a letter to Chancellor Barbara Wilson with concerns about the racial climate on campus, much of this stemming from the unofficial mascot and imagery still on campus. The letter asks that the administration come up with a statement to explain that they do not promote the Chief because they want the University to be “a welcome and comfortable place for students and faculty of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Jay Rosenstein, a professor of media and cinema studies and American Indian studies affiliate, is one of the authors of the letter. Without an official University statement, he said people assume the Chief was only banned because of the NCAA requirements.

“The NCAA said that these kind of images and mascots are hostile and abusive to Native American people,” Rosenstein said. “The University won’t admit that that’s a problem, so I think we need to finally be brave and courageous enough to educate people about what is wrong with these symbols and mascots.”

Chief supporters also acknowledge that a statement from the University is needed.

Steve Raquel, an adjunct lecturer in the College of Business who served as the Chief in 1993, said prior to the 2007 decision, he was working with the administration and Board of Trustees to find a way to transition the Chief to appease opponents and follow NCAA policy. But then, the University made the decision to retire the Chief.

“I was one of three people who sat in the meetings and met with the Peoria tribe Chief, negotiated with the Board of Trustees, so I was one of the closest people to making this work, so to have them go ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It was hard,” he said.

Dan Maloney, a University alumnus and the last official Chief who performed the final dance at Assembly Hall in 2007, said regardless of how people feel about the Chief, the University mishandled the situation.

“(The University) had the ability to have deeper discussions with the NCAA, and they decided, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do that,”’ Maloney said. “We had opportunities even before that to endow scholarships and build up a very solid foundational relationship with the Peoria Tribe and we didn’t do that … People remember how they handled the situation and how quickly it was bushed to the side.”

But Buckley believes that there is much more needed than just a statement that comes from above.

“While the NCAA would like that very much, and, in a way, that would solve a lot of instrumental issues, it’s not going to solve the way people feel or way people think,” she said. “I think we need more opportunities for engagement and discussion.”

For now, the Chief controversy stands.

Ivan Dozier, the current unofficial Chief and a graduate student in Crop Sciences, is continuing tryouts to select a new unofficial Chief. When he graduates, he plans to continue to educate people on the Chief through avenues like a web series or even a book.

In the coming weeks, Villanueva and his co-authors will release the application for students to be on the exploratory committee to see if the University is ready for a new mascot.

And students of Native American and indigenous heritage like Castle will keep making their voices heard and refuse a future with the Chief.

“In decades it ought to be a chuckle, whereas right now it’s worth crying over,” Castle said.

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