University fails to unify a campus divided on Chief

By Dan Mollison

Chief Illiniwek has been retired, and we are reeling. Our controversial symbol was quietly removed from us in the early hours of last Friday morning. There was no ceremony. There was no funeral. There was only a short, two-page press release to put the Chief to rest.

There are as many interpretations of what the Chief means as there are current and former members of our campus community, and many of our perspectives on the Chief are deeply rooted in the values we believe in. But regardless of whether we see the Chief as a celebration of loyalty, honor and courage, or a reminder that racism is still alive and well in our society, one thing is clear: His removal should not have been handled like this.

The Chief controversy extends far beyond our individual perspectives. Chief Illiniwek is a public image, and so we are all free to define for ourselves what he represents. Because there are tens of thousands of people who bring valid feelings and experiences to this issue, it is far too simplistic to say that one’s definition of the Chief is right while another’s is wrong. But just because our conflicting ideas have led to the Chief’s removal does not mean that he should be retired quietly with a sense of embarrassment and without recognition for what he has meant to members of our community.

I’ll be honest: I am not deeply connected to the Chief. I’m not really the kind of person to get attached to a tradition for tradition’s sake. I became one of the Illini fans who, after listening to those who were subjected to threats of violence sparked by the Chief’s presence, could no longer feel that familiar sense of pride while watching the Chief’s halftime performance.

But I understand that for many others, watching the Chief dance in these same shows inspired a wonderful sense of pride for the University. The joy that they felt is real and palpable, and regardless of whether we’ll ultimately look back on the Chief’s removal as an improvement for the University, it serves no purpose for us to discount the feelings of those who are now in mourning over the loss of the Chief.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

There has long been debate over whether the Chief is a racist mascot. I have personally been exposed to the “hostile and abusive” behavior that the Chief has sparked, and I will feel relieved if his removal will make members of our community safer. It is deeply shocking and upsetting that a symbol intended to unify us has fostered an environment in which some of our community must face threats of violence. But even if the Chief is capable of igniting the worst in us, it is inappropriate for him to be defined as only a symbol of racism, which the University administration implicitly suggests by barely acknowledging the conclusion of his 81 years on campus.

By failing to approach the Chief controversy with responsibility and decisiveness, the administration has done a disservice to us all. For decades our leaders have openly ignored the Native Americans who have plead their case before them, and these community members deserve an apology. Likewise, the administration could have also greatly eased the pain of those who support the Chief by clearly explaining why this decision was made and by offering Chief supporters some official means to say goodbye to him. By doing nothing the University has helped no one, and has failed to take the steps to unify our campus that we now so desperately need.

Abraham Lincoln once warned us that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It will take loyalty, honor and courage for us to set aside our differences and move forward as one united community. Only we can decide if we will live up to what the Chief was intended to represent.

Goodbye, Chief Illiniwek.