History of the Chief: Who do you honor?

The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act gave educational institutions access to abundant acres of land to create state universities where residents were provided affordable higher education without having to leave their state of residence.** However, the land in question has come with a gruesome history of dispossession, ethnocide and environmental discrimination against American Indian Nations that should never be forgotten.

Among the Big Ten Schools that are in existence because of the land grant acts, it is none other than the University of Illinois sitting on land belonging to the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations.**** The University has put out a formal land acknowledgement that states the “gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory,” they are on.****

Although this is a step in the right direction in addressing American Indians Nations and their land, Illinois has not partnered with them in efforts to work with and honor them. An acknowledgement without action is not enough to right the wrongs the university has committed. Without action it is merely performative. The only way to honor American Indian Nations whose land we are on is through reparations and land redistribution. American Indian Nations should benefit from University resources as much as the students do.

Amongst other large organizations and universities, Illinois and their students openly supported the stereotypical and disrespectful mascot that was usually portrayed by a white student that did not have racial, ethnic, or religious ties to any American Indian Nation.

Born in 1926, The Chief Illiniwek mascot performed gymnastic dances that mocked sacred American Indian rituals, while insensitively and wrongfully wearing a sacred eagle headdress.****** The Chief drew on American Indian stereotypes trying to represent the Illini Nations while wearing traditional Sioux attire, appropriating and misrepresenting American Indian tradition.*****

The University and Chief supporters have claimed that this was their way of honoring the land and the people who once lived here. But this in no way was honoring them. It is not possible to honor and mock someone at the same time. It is hypocritical and embarrassing for the University to say they are honoring American Indians after minimal efforts of trying to do so. There is no true way of honoring someone on their stolen land.

Nearly two decades after American Indian activists and other Universities were pressing on the University of Illinois to discard the mascot, the chief performed their final halftime show in 2007.****** This pillar of change that was long overdue was an opportunity for the University of Illinois to address its gruesome history of endorsing a culturally insensitive mascot and replace it with something all communities at the University can enjoy and embrace without degrading other human beings.

Unfortunately, without making any formal declarations, it created an opportunity for pro chief students and alumni to cling onto the idea of the chief still being the University’s official unofficial mascot, keeping it alive in spirit through merchandise and the War Chant. Even after the banning of American Indian caricature, the hatred and prejudice against American Indian communities is still alive and has been fueled by the lack of action the University has taken against these pressing issues.

While many of us cannot understand the obsession and rationale behind keeping this kind of mascot, there seems to be a multitude of people who still do not seem to understand. Groups of Alumni believe that the Chief Illiniwek is a way to honor Native Nations and have created bigoted Facebook groups that believe it is okay to use culture as a costume. In the post Trump era, they have also created “Make Illinois Great Again” campaigns where the main concern to improve in Illinois is to bring back the Chief. It is quite astonishing to see how college graduates cannot understand basic human rights.

The Daily Illini has published an opinion article with a subliminal pro Chief standpoint stating that the chief will always remain a part of the school’s history in a strangely optimistic and endearing tone.*** Pro Chief publications and attitudes on official university forums are examples of ways people keep the chief alive and continue to perpetuate anti American Indian attitudes on campus, giving people who feel this way a right and a platform to do so.

Not only do hostile attitudes like this create an unsafe environment for American Indians but they also open the door towards prejudices against other minority groups. If people are not held accountable for their actions, then people with similar mindsets are going to justify their racist actions as well creating a dangerous environment for Black, Latinx, Asian and other minority students.

As Latinx students at the University of Illinois, we should be doing our fair share of work in solidarity with the American Indian community and fight against the hostile attitudes created towards them. It is crucial to educate each other on the dangers of the mascot. The fight towards change is a fight for inclusivity for minority groups at the University of Illinois.

After a long wait, the University of Illinois has finally announced a potential mascot, the belted Kingfisher bird, a native Illinois species that will hopefully be celebrated by the University community for years to come.*

Update

On December 5, 2020, Chancellor Jones sent out an email titled “Implementation of Plan of Native Imagery,” stating that the following plan will be implemented into the University in efforts bringing awareness to American Indian nations and representation:

  1. In State Tuition for Native Students

  2. Relationships with Native Nations

  3. Permanent on Campus Sites

  4. Repatriation of University’s Native American Collections to Tribal Communities and Lineal Descendants (Including hiring the University’s first NAGPRA Program Officer)

  5. Historic Account of Native Imagery

  6. Indigenous Faculty Increase

  7. New Traditions

*Keilman , John. “With Campus Senate Approval, the Belted Kingfisher Continues Hopeful Dive toward Becoming the University of Illinois’ New Mascot.” 22 Sept. 2020.


**Nash, Margaret A. “The Dark History of Land-Grant Universities.” The Washington Post , 8 Nov. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/08/dark history-land-grant-universities/.


***Nelson, Noah. “Opinion | Chief Illiniwek Remains Embedded in UI History.” Daily Illini , 21 Apr. 2020.


****“OFFICE OF THE CHANCELLOR.” Office of the Chancellor | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2018,

chancellor.illinois.edu/land_acknowledgement.html.


*****Rosenstein, Jay, Director. In Whose Honor? New Day Films, 1997.


******“The Program in American Indian Studies.” Mascot Timeline | American Indian Studies Program at Illinois, ais.illinois.edu/resources/mascot-information/mascot timeline.


#NuestrasHistorias #UIUC #ChiefIlliniwek #Historical

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