Chief Illiniwek Unofficial shirts sparks discussion on copyright, ‘offensiveness’

Ivan Dozier, a graduate student, dressed as “Chief Illiniwek” walks around the stadium during the game against Northwestern on Saturday. Many Unofficial shirts use versions of the Chief logo and can sometimes have questionable meanings.

As Unofficial draws closer, spirit wear stores around campus remove their orange and blue attire from the mannequins and replace them with traditional green clothing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Since the retirement of Chief Illiniwek, many stores have decided to print their own versions of the Chief in hope of keeping the honor and memory alive, said Te Shurt owner Michele Fassett.

However, selling shirts can become tricky, since certain depictions of the Chief are trademarked by the University. 

Campus Licensing Coordinator Marty Kaufmann said the University can only control one version of the logo — the circular depiction of Chief Illiniwek. He said the University is active in ensuring no one uses its trademarked material and will intervene with manufacturers if the trademark is violated.  

However, when a vendor decides to capitalize on its own version of Chief Illiniwek, there is little the University can do unless the picture of the Chief is accompanied with the words “Illinois” or “University of Illinois.”

The University collects an estimated $10,000 annually in royalties for the trademarked Chief logo — a small amount in comparison to the $1.5 million in overall royalties the University receives a year, according to Kaufmann.

Fassett explained her store’s apparel displaying the Chief is not illegal because their depiction features a side-profile of Chief Illiniwek and uses words, such as “Unofficial” or “Oskee Wow Wow” to create an illusion of a headdress. The design was originally printed by Fassett’s father, Bob Sammons, in the 1960s.

On Feb. 10, a post on the campus’ Reddit page, titled “Hey UIUC, we need to talk…” captured a shirt sold by the Evergreen Tobacco Company that sparked 114 comments as of press time.

The shirt states, “Wait in line to get drunk?” followed by an uncopyrighted picture of a Native American chief and the words, “Bitch, I’ve got a reservation.” 

Redditors have dubbed the shirt in “extremely bad taste” and “offensive.” Evergreen Tobacco failed to comment on the controversy regarding the shirt.

Ivan Dozier, graduate student, is often seen at University sporting events dressed in traditional Chief Illiniwek attire and mimicking the demeanor of the former Chief.

Dozier described the shirt as being, “extremely distasteful” and added, “Right now with the University not being allowed to touch anything Chief related, these are the problems that it causes.”

He argues against the belief that the Chief is disrespectful. 

Dozier is of American Indian descent and a second-generation University student.

“My place on campus is trying to get everyone to revisit this idea and say, ‘Let’s maintain this integrity.’ There is a right way to do it. You have a beacon for culture, do you destroy it, or do you repair it?” Dozier said. 

He debunked many arguments made by anti-Chief activists with facts learned through first hand experiences at local Native American powwows. 

“People have a right to culture,” he said. “People have a right to identify with a symbol. People have a right to identify with the positive qualities tied to what we call the Fighting Illini.”

Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu, senior in social work, is an activist for Native American rights. In February, he wrote a blog post calling upon students and community members to boycott various places on and off campus for displaying Chief Illiniwek. 

“I’ve created what I hope will become a running list of businesses, administrators, and organizations in the UIUC community who actively support white supremacy, settler colonialism and anti-Native sentiment in the name of ‘protecting tradition’ and propagating irresponsible and racist depictions of indigenous people,” he wrote.

Kuramitsu said is seen as difficult for some community members to understand where members of the Native American community come from when they protest the use of an American Indian as a mascot. 

“It is a form of ignorance to not realize how others interpret a symbol,” Kuramitsu said. “The facts are out there, and if you do research like I did, I think people would come to a more compassionate stance and shift a little bit.”

The administration “does not sponsor or sanction Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day nor any events or merchandise associated with it,” as stated in a massmail sent March 3. 

Overall, Fassett said the spirit wear sellers on campus try to show the Chief in an honorable light throughout Unofficial because there are so many alumnae and townspeople who are pro-Chief and believe it to be a tradition. 

When its comes to crossing the line of offensiveness associated with Chief Illiniwek, Fassett said, “Somebody will wear that shirt and buy that shirt, but there will always be those people who do that. There is nothing we can do to stop the sale of it, but you can hope that people’s reaction to a shirt like that is, ‘Ew,’ but I don’t think it’s funny.” 

[email protected] 

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article, it was incorrectly written that the University has copyright over the Chief Illiniwek logo, when in fact the logo is trademarked by the University. The Daily Illini regrets the error.