Looking at Chief controversy through cultural lens

One of the most controversial campus issues has been thrown back in the spotlight. The Honor the Chief Society and the University Board of Trustees reached an agreement regarding the Chief Illiniwek trademark.

The debate over whether the Chief should be considered a symbol of the University is one that has caused me large amounts of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, I understand the Chief’s tie to the University and how it has been a quintessential source of pride for students and alumni. On the other hand, the Native American community has been vocal about their opposition, and, because of the symbol’s tie to the Native American heritage, the wishes of the community should be respected.

My position as a resident adviser for University Housing strengthened my worldview of inclusiveness and respect, and I believe the portrayal of the Chief is neither inclusive nor respectful of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma — descendents of the Illinois Indians.

In the late 1600s, the Illinois Indians, also known as the Illiniwek Indians, were said to have consisted of as many as 12 tribes.

After years of colonization and merging of Indian tribes, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma are the closest thing left to the Illinois Indians because they are comprised of Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw and Wea Indians — all descendants of the Illinois.

Chief Illiniwek is a well-intentioned attempt to honor and respect the Native Americans, but he represents a grave misunderstanding of their traditions and culture.

The traditions of Chief Illiniwek are not in line with the traditions of the Peoria Tribe. Though the regalia worn by the Chief was donated by a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, it has since demanded the return of the regalia because it has been misused and wrongly represents people of the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw and Wea Indians.

Further, in some tribes the Chief is a revered leader religiously and spiritually. Someone imitating the tribes’ ceremonial practices in a public venue for entertainment would be like someone dressing up as the pope and dancing on a football field.

The Honor the Chief Society said use of the Chief is not sacrilegious because “pow wows” are held by some Native Americans, but this is a hasty generalization that perpetuates the stereotype of Native American dances. It voids the importance and sacredness with which some tribes view their ceremonial dances.

Though many believe the authenticity of the dance, it was based off of the observations of one of the University’s first Chiefs, Lester Leutwiler, and not passed down from the real sharing of Native American traditions. Instead of it being a real Native American dance, it’s something that looks like one.

Finally, the current portrayer of the Chief, Ivan Dozier, said he is half Cherokee. However, this doesn’t necessarily give him the authority to recreate Peoria Tribe traditions. Using the term Native Americans is synonymous to using the terms European, Asian, Latino, etc. Not all Asians are Chinese; not all Europeans are Italian; not all Latinos are Mexican; and not all Native Americans are Cherokee.

Chief Illiniwek is a stereotype that portrays all chiefs and tribes as the same, while there are many different American Indian cultures and cultural practices.

What really grinds my gears is that people say the Chief is an honor to Native American cultures even though the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization, the Native American House and the Department of American Indian Studies say otherwise. Who are non-Native Americans to say what is honoring Native Americans?

Since we are at the University of Illinois, we should actively work with the Peoria Tribe in creating an educational process because they are the closest descendents to Illinois Indians. If the Chief were to once again become a symbol of the University, a class similar to ACE IT or FYCARE should be put into place that educates students about the significance of Native American culture, especially the culture surrounding the Peoria Tribe.

If not that, students should be required to take AIS 101, Intro to American Indian Studies, to better understand the history and culture surrounding Native Americans.

Because our University promotes diversity and inclusivity, I believe the Chief can serve as a great educational tool for informing students about the most underrepresented group at the University and continue to instill pride into the students, alumni, faculty and staff.

Matt is a sophomore in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MatthewPasquini.