VP of Students for Chief Illiniwek calls for renewed campus support

By Paul Schmitt

After the 2004 referenda asking students whether they supported Chief Illiniwek as the University’s symbol, many students on the UI campus probably did not expect the issue to fire up again a mere three years later. However, after NCAA infringement on University autonomy, thoughtless comments on Facebook and resolutions regarding regalia, Chief Illiniwek once again is facing a future that is uncertain. Further, the DI editorial board, who as of last semester was unqualified even to attempt editorials, proclaimed that it was time for an end to the 81-year tradition. Why then, do many feel that it is necessary to continue our most stirring and dignified symbol’s performances?

The answer is simply because Chief Illiniwek, whether you like him or not, embodies the University of Illinois – it is perhaps one of few great things on this campus that is uniquely Illinois. In 1926 when football coach Robert Zuppke gave his inspirational talk to his team about the Illiniwek or, “the complete man,” he was encouraging his players to strive for values that were higher than themselves, values that they could share with the native roots of our beautiful state. In that spirit, with the help of assistant director of bands Ray Dvorak, Chief Illiniwek was born symbolizing the complete human being that Zuppke spoke one who is intellectually disciplined, physically superior, and spiritually strong.

As much as Chief Illiniwek was a portrayal of Native American culture, it has become an integral part of University culture, an identifiable symbol that hundreds of thousands have connected with over the years. Perhaps this is where the debate and “controversy” over Chief Illiniwek takes a wrong turn. Instead of focusing on how the Chief was birthed to capture a spirit, pundits on both sides have argued on the grounds of race. Similarly, the opposing factions on the Chief debate may never see eye to eye completely. Those who oppose Chief Illiniwek do not seem to grasp the sense of spirit and integrity that is felt by many supporters and many supporters do not understand the cultural and racial grounds from which detractors of the Chief argue.

Perhaps this is why many people “just want the issue to go away.” Unless changes are made, it is unquestionable that the issue will continue to wear on the University. Changes should be made, in the right context. Expansive programming on the history of our traditions and of Native American culture is needed on this campus that will benefit all students and maximize exposure to cultural sensitivity and respect. These are the goals of our organization, Students for Chief Illiniwek, which uses the power of our great symbol to open windows of interest into Native American culture. For supporters, it is quintessential that if you are to “honor the Chief” you also take the responsibility to educate yourself in the rich history of culture embodied in Chief Illiniwek.

For detractors who have never taken the time to attempt to understand the symbol, you must also understand the significant virtues that supporters see and wish to emulate in Chief Illiniwek. It is far too easy and far too ignorant to simply label something as “racist” without first attempting to understand where it comes from and why it is beloved by and is significant to so many. Mere ‘mascots’ are not invited to perform at presidential inaugurations, mere racists do not clasp the strangers next to them and sing of love and pride. The spirit embodied in Chief Illiniwek has the power to unite a campus so expansive that some label it a “diploma factory.” Let students, supporters and detractors, have a constructive campus dialogue. However, a constructive dialogue only comes from an honest effort by both sides. While opinions may not be changed, room for building respect is present.

I urge the thousands of students who support Chief Illiniwek to write their letters of support to the individuals who need to hear it (www.studentsforchief.com) and to learn much more about our symbol’s tradition and about Native American culture. If there is ever a time to be supportive of true Illini spirit, it is now.