New Chief debate shows that spirit still endures

By Paul Schmitt

It’s an image that would have been more suitable in a Halloween column: the ghost of Chief Illiniwek haunting the Illinois campus, tying up administrators’ concerns and widening the chasm between the community at large and the University as an institution. But despite a fumbled regalia return, a controversy at Homecoming and a surprising presence on Quad Day, the Urbana-Champaign Senate couldn’t resist stoking the Illiniwek fire yesterday afternoon on a resolution that would have severed all official University ties with Homecoming activities, specifically the Homecoming parade.

For those of you who missed it, the image of Chief Illiniwek was banned from this year’s Homecoming parade by the Chancellor’s Committee to Support Homecoming. The policy not only disallowed the image of the Chief on floats, but also would not allow students to wear their purchased Chief Illiniwek T-shirts – uh oh. A firestorm immediate ensued: Local media outlets including The News-Gazette and Jim Turpin’s “Penny for Your Thoughts” denounced the policy as a gross violation of free speech, Students for Chief Illiniwek prepared for legal action and President B. Joseph White was on the receiving end of a scolding letter signed by 16 state legislators, some of whom are alumni.

At this point, Chancellor Herman decided to “review” the policy, which was overturned. The ordeal was so ridiculous that the free speech violation made it into a Sunday edition of the New York Times – not bad for a fallen symbol.

Monday afternoon the Urbana-Champaign Senate pushed to have an anti-Chief resolution passed, which would have effectively denounced University involvement in its own Homecoming festivities. While the resolution would seem ridiculous to the average student, the debate over the issue became so heated that the motion was tabled until February. Apparently some faculty members were confused by the term “dissociate” in the resolution. Student senators unanimously spoke against the resolution, insisting that it was arbitrary and a waste of time.

Many faculty senators, upset that the University was not slapping Chief-loving students symbolically on the wrist, seemed to disagree that the senate was wasting its time, noting that a thorough debate was needed to ensue on the issue. One professor stated, “We need to beat this dead horse down.” Some even insisted that the institution’s true motives for eradicating the Chief were not represented (‘because it was the moral thing to do’).

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It’s funny that they mention that because I can’t recall the trustees saying anything about a moral thing to do. Instead, I recall them saying that they did everything possible to defend Chief Illiniwek from the NCAA, coming up short in the end.

Apparently they didn’t do everything they could; the University of North Dakota, the lone institution to take the NCAA to court on the matter, struck a deal with the NCAA to allow it to continue its use of Native American imagery for three years while UND garnered local tribe support. Moral high ground indeed.

At least other institutions have stopped using ethnic symbolism in their intercollegiate athletics. Oh, wait. There’s the Florida State Seminoles, San Diego State University Aztecs (who escaped the list because they could find no modern-day Aztecs that were living or offended), and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, to name a few. And then there is the University of Hawaii, whose “Warriors” are represented by Vili the Warrior, a local man who dresses in war paint and a Hawaiian grass skirt and cheers from the sideline.

Vili’s display can be found on YouTube (search ‘Steph the warrior’), where his antics make Chief Illiniwek’s performances look like a Tridentine Mass. Hawaii will be appearing in this season’s Sugar Bowl, likely accompanied by Vili the Warrior and silence from the NCAA.

However, should the faculty members wish to think that Chief Illiniwek was a victim of the moral high ground, let them believe it. Because of their condemnation of those harmlessly expressing their love for a widely supported symbol, many students and outsiders would say that they sacrificed that high ground in a resolution that stated,

“Be it resolved by the UIUC Senate that the UIUC Administration dissociate itself from future Homecoming displays.”

Editor’s note: Paul Schmitt is the president of Students for Chief Illiniwek