Chief still dancing

Suzanne Stelmasek The Daily Illini Suzanne Stelmasek

Suzanne Stelmasek The Daily Illini Suzanne Stelmasek

By Courtney Linehan

Chief Illiniwek takes a deep breath, waiting for the band. He stands in an empty hall outside Huff gym, arms crossed over his chest, feathers trailing down his back. He lightly taps his bare feet in the double step he has danced for 80 years, as inside the gym orange-clad students line his path to center court.

One more deep breath. The start of a drum beat from the band. Chief Illiniwek turns, crouches down, and steps into the 81st year many fans and opponents thought would never come.

Friday’s volleyball game marked the first official Chief Illiniwek performance of the 2006-07 athletic season. More than one year after the NCAA first issued a decree that Illiniwek is “hostile and abusive” – and should be removed from Illinois sporting events – the Chief made his return before a crowd of 3,129 volleyball fans.

“I think that (the Board of Trustees members) have their own timetable and are looking to do the right thing,” Athletic Director Ron Guenther told The Associated Press in June. “The only thing I have told the (University) president and the chancellor is that I trust the Board of Trustees and respect the issues.”

Illiniwek’s season opener went off without word from protestors who have trailed the University symbol for much of the past two decades. Illiniwek’s opponents say he is a racist stereotype, degrading to the American Indian cultures he purports to represent. They applaud the NCAA’s suggestion that the Chief be retired, saying it is time to put the eight-decade tradition to bed.

But that sentiment made no noticeable appearance on Friday, when legions of Illiniwek supporters cheered as the Chief danced, jumped and led the crowd in singing the Alma Mater.

“I was very excited to see the Chief,” said Bryan Meeker, sophomore in LAS who attended the volleyball game. “You could sense the excitement in the gym as people were waiting to see him.”

To his supporters, Illiniwek is a beloved symbol of the University. He represents noble virtues of bravery, honor and loyalty. Supporters say his performance is done with respect and therefore should not be seen as offensive.

For the indefinite future, Chief Illiniwek will continue to perform at Illinois sporting events. He will be on the field when football faces Eastern Illinois University on Saturday, and will likely appear at men’s and women’s basketball games this winter.