Good riddance, Chief


Students are livid. Alumni are furious. Fans are so angry they are peppering websites with angry messages. The University should be ashamed for bowing to pressure from the NCAA, they write.

Now, people all over Illinois are stunned and deflated as they prepare to say good-bye to the Chief, the school’s American Indian mascot for the past 81 years.

No longer will fans get to see a University of Illini student make a mockery of Native American culture. No longer will students get to see a 20-something white male jump around as if he had ants in his pants. No longer will people in the arena get to see the most ridiculous and insensitive portrayal of an ethnic group anywhere. Thank God.

The Chief is relatively new to me. I grew up in Florida where we have our own version of the Chief. But that’s where the comparison ends. Before football games, Chief Osceola and his horse, Renegade, ride out to the center of the field and throw a spear into the middle of the field. Afterward, this chief pretty much sits on his horse, riding up and down the sidelines a few times. Chief Osceola does not do a mocking dance, nor chant nonsensically.

Unlike at U of I, Florida State has the support of the local Indian tribe. The Seminole Tribe officially sanctions Chief Osceola and the use of its name. Plus, the Seminole Tribe seeks the connection to the university. It’s am “honor” to be associated, says Max Osceola, the chief and general council president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Of course, the university pays the tribe for the use of that mascot. Still, there is a difference between the two chiefs. The chief at Florida State is quieter and treated with respect. At the U of I, the chief is a spazz who mocks Native Americans. What in the world does that dance have to do with anything that Illini, or any other Indians, find spiritual and sacred? Isn’t a university supposed to stand for reason and knowledge? Illinois is one of the finest research institutions in the country, yet it is remembered more and more for the Chief’s dance. The decision is a no-brainer for such a revered educational institution.

How about we use Sambo as a mascot and have him do a black-faced dance a la Bojangles? The Chief’s dance is just as absurd. What’s just as sad are the comments on message boards and in interviews cited on TV and in newspapers. Many fans and alumni are attacking the university and the NCAA for forcing the end of the chief’s escapades.

Fans invoke such weighty words as honor and loyalty and tradition, but they fail to mention that the chief ridicules these very same words for Native Americans everywhere. [By the way, how in the hell does the NFL allow such a mean-spirited word as Redskins to remain as a team nickname?]

“The chief is an honored symbol,” writes one fan. “I am ashamed of the University of Illinois. The Chief is much more than a ‘mascot.’ He is a respected and honored tradition who has spanned generations.”

Another writes: “I love the Chief and the honor, loyalty, and tradition that he stands for. … The University has now lowered itself to the level of all other universities in the nation by giving up a proud heritage.”

Buying and wearing more Illiniwek merchandise will show those forcing this change, writes another fan who is “ashamed” of his university. Fortunately, the spirit of Chief will transcend time, don’t ya know: “The legacy, spirit, and tradition of Chief Illiniwek will go on through all of us who have held him in such high regard for so many years, and he will forever be the honored symbol of the University of Illinois no matter what.”

One fan says we should stop looking for ways to be offended by free expressions like Chief Illinwek’s dance. Here’s the twisted logic: “We can choose to be offended or we can ignore the words or actions that offend us.” That’s easy to say if you do not face such discrimination on a daily basis.

So today while reporters and columnists continue to feed on this frenzy, and fans mourn, and students drink, and the board of trustees that voted to end the Chief’s affiliation stays at home, I will sit down in front of the TV and switch off the Illinois-Michigan game and turn on “The Sopranos.” At least, I know the portrayal of Italian-Americans in this show purposely mocks stereotypes for entertainment purposes. There’s no pretense that the loyalty, honor and tradition in this show are legitimate. Besides, this show is a helluva lot more entertaining.



11 Responses to “Good riddance, Chief”

  1. Jerry Says:

    Joe, You really missed the boat on this one. While you will no doubt get support from your liberal friends in Academia, your arguments just don’t wash with the average citizen. (Although admittedly unscientific, several thousand participants in a recent media-sponsored online poll disagreed with the UI Board of Trustees by a 10 to 1 margin!)
    Opinions are, by nature, slanted, full of factual inaccuracies, and often-times not well thought-out. Here are just a few examples from your article:
    1. You refer to the Illini mascot as a “twenty-something white male”, yet consistently refer to the Florida State mascot as “Chief Osceola”. Here’s a newsflash, Joe. He ain’t no chief, either. Yep,he’s a 20 something white male.
    2. You make reference to the Illini mascot “chanting nonsensically”. The Illini mascot appears for 3 minutes at halftime, and has never uttered a word. Ever.
    3. Here’s my favorite line from your article: “No longer will people in the arena get to see the most ridiculous and insensitive portrayal of an ethnic group anywhere. Thank God.” So a white guy in full Indian combat gear riding a horse to midfield and casting a burning spear in the ground is somehow more respectful? Please don’t even pretend that you are serious.
    4. Finally, you make the argument that “unlike at U of I,Florida State has the support of the local Indian tribe.” They are paid off, Joe! You said it yourself! There is no Illini Indian Tribe…but if there were, I’m of the opinion that they would support the Illini mascot if they, too, were paid off.

    If you are personally offended by the Illini mascot and feel that he makes a mockery of Native Americans, that is certainly an opinion to which you are entitled….regardless of the almost absurd paucity of people who agree with you. That being said, please don’t compromise your own argument by making some ridiculous statements in support of the Indian warrior at FSU. Jerry

  2. Ralph Braseth Says:


    We know a little something about mascot problems at Ole Miss with our infamous Colonel Reb. It’s a story that will not end.

    What I’m really writing for, though, is to compliment you on a great blog site. I also like that you chose a bomb of a topic to start with.

    Nicely done.

  3. Joe Gisondi Says:

    Jerry, You are right that FSU should not be absolved here. FSU’s mascot is not a shining beacon in any way. It is just the lesser of two evils.

    You make some good points, but I still believe the ridiculous dance needs to be halted. Perhaps, Chief Osceola will be the next to go.

  4. Becky Carlson Says:

    An interviewing professor once posed the question to the class asking “Do your questions BETRAY your lack of knowledge?”

    Again, my previous response to one of these blogs included reference to my grad school experience.

    In one of our discussions, the U of I mascot controversy crept in completely by accident during an open forum discussion.

    Honestly, I sat no where else but right in the middle simply because I did not know enough about it.
    I don’t think I wanted to know or make a decision.

    In the room that day you were either a racist if you favored keeping the chief, or you were a party crasher if you favored removing the traditional mascot. I felt neither way, ahh yes, I was safe.

    The justifications stated that day for keeping the mascot included the phrases “the dance is authentic and respectable”, “the outcry is not coming from native americans, it’s coming form white activists”, “the university would lose too much money from alumni so the NCAA can never force them to get rid of the chief.”

    I listened. Sadly, yet not surprisingly, it turns out, after my own research, the bulk of these claims were untrue and obviously from the recent decision, the NCAA and the board has proved the third theory completely false.

    I am not a Native American. I do not know what it is like to be on that side of the table for this argument.

    Motivations for keeping it have caught my attention and truly the one thing I continue to hear is about tradition. This mascot is a symbol of what the U of I is used to, it’s comfort.

    Regardless of how degrading a culture or group may feel the mascot is, the people who feel they OWN it, are the people who do /did not live it.

    I have heard so many examples about using other cultures as mascots to make a point.

    Joe even uses the bojangles reference in his column. People do not absorb these examples nor do they learn from them because it does not support their cause in allowing them to keep what is comfortable for them.

    People like examples like, “Well, if you get rid of the Chief for respect to culture than you mine as well get rid of the panther because it could represent animal cruelty. There’s no stopping the NCAA once they start in on this.”

    As ridiculous as that sounds, I read that last year on a blog. But, somehow, people agreed with it, post after post after post.

    In fifth grade, I remember they changed the mascot in my elementary school from a Native American symbol to a golden retriever. We even had a contest for suggestions to change the school colors.

    Many of the parents were upset because their older children (and even some of the parents) had attended and it was almost as if THEIR history with the mascot superceded the history and the rights of the Native Americans. They missed the point of the removal and thought only of THEIR relationship to the mascot.

    Somehow, the usage for over 80some years at U of I has transformed into ownership, comfort and sometimes it portrays a bit of selfishness. (I know a sport that has this problem, eh Joe?)

    In the end, the colors remained blue and green but the mascot was definitely traded in. My elementary school may not be the U of I, but the process was still the same….controversial yet realistic.

    If students want to boycott games (that may just be another false report) or buy up all the chief apparell, then LET them miss the point of the subtraction of the chief. This is not about what belongs to them and is being taken away. It’s about giving it back and walking away.

    Either way, if they all just look at it as trading in the Native American symbol for a sweatshirt with a “golden retriever” on it, it might not be so bad. But then again, I didn’t go to U of I and feel no ownership over The Chief.

    To Jerry: I am not in Academia, and do not label as liberal or conservative. I suppose that makes me the average citizen.

    You refuted article point by point and most certainly forced another side of the table. Isn’t that what this is for?

    I would personally like to know how you feel or felt about the NCAA removing the Fighting Sioux at North Dakota? Perhaps the removal of the mascot at Southeast Missouri (SEMO, an OVC member)

    The national news covered much less on these two institutions than the U of I. I wonder if U of ND or SEMO did polls that returned such an outcry?

  5. Jerry Says:

    Becky, With apologies, I stand by my statement that you are a member of an overwhelming minority. (Is that an oxymoron?) Please provide any poll that refutes that fact. Or heck, ask the first 100 people you meet and let me know the results. I’m not saying that you are right or wrong…only that most folks disagree with you.
    Now, to my main point….which I apparently did a poor job of conveying the first time:
    You appear to have jumped to the conclusion that I wrote in support of the Chief… although I clearly never said that or implied it. I wrote for the expressed purpose of pointing out to my good friend Joe the contradictions in his logic. If one is a racist symbol, then surely so is the other. Right? Please take a moment and let me know if you agree with me on that.
    As for my opinion on the South Dakota State and SEMO mascots, I have no personal knowledge of it and, hence, no opinion.
    I am intrigued, though, by your personal research that refutes the claim that most vocal opponents of the chief are white activists. The protesters that I see at ballgames are overwhelming white. So much so that I’m left to wonder how you can claim differently. Are there Native American protests about Chief Illiniwek in other parts of the country that I’m not aware of? When and where do these take place?
    Finally, if anyone is still reading, my personal thoughts on the Chief: During over 30 years of attending Illini football and basketball games, I’ve never seen anyone laugh at the Chief. I’ve never seen anyone be anything but respectful (other than the white protesters). Granted, I’m generally peeing during halftime because I honestly would rather miss the Chief’s dance than one minute of the ballgame. 🙂
    If I honestly believed that Native Americans were outraged, that it affected them adversely in any signficant way, that this whole controversy is not in fact a product of white activists telling the Indians that they should really be mad….. then I’d say “dump the chief. The symbol is not that important.”
    While I have no particular passion for the Chief, have not and will not contribute to any funds geared toward “saving” him, I also believe that today’s Native Americans are dealing with real issues such as food, clothing, and shelter…and honestly couldn’t care less about either the Chief or the University of Illinois.

  6. Becky Carlson Says:

    Jerry wrote:

    “I am intrigued, though, by your personal research that refutes the claim that most vocal opponents of the chief are white activists. The protesters that I see at ballgames are overwhelming white. So much so that I’m left to wonder how you can claim differently. Are there Native American protests about Chief Illiniwek in other parts of the country that I’m not aware of? When and where do these take place?

    Jerry, if you notice in my statement, I was careful and wrote ” The justifications stated that day for keeping the mascot included the phrases “the dance is authentic and respectable”, UNTRUE “the outcry is not coming from native americans, it’s coming form white activists”, TRUE
    “the university would lose too much money from alumni so the NCAA can never force them to get rid of the chief.” UNTRUE

    Following these statements
    “…it turns out, after my own research, the BULK of these claims were untrue and obviously from the recent decision, the NCAA and the board has proved the third theory completely false.

    While I did not state the countless numbers of rumors repeated during the controversy, I have never envisioned a massive protest of Native Americans outside the building of U of I or any other area of the country.

    FYI there were also claims that the Chief’s “war cries” were insulting and based on your experience at Illini games, you know and have been able testify that this is unfounded. These are the rumors I was referencing.

    I apologize for my number of listed claims that supposedly include an implication that Native Americans were the majority groups crying out against the usage of the Chief. That was not the case at all and no, I do not believe that.

    And thank you for the reference back to South Dakota, I have no idea why I put ND out there. 🙂

  7. Chris Says:

    Perhaps the U. of Illinois would do well to follow the lead of the students at the University of Santa Cruz, who voted some time ago to change their mascot to the Banana Slug.

    It’s certainly less controversial than choosing a mascot based on racial characteristics. But then I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance here because I’m descended from Irish immigrants and my favorite football team is “The Fighting Irish.” What can it all mean?

    I’ve read the other responses to Joe’s post and have mainly this to say: we’ve got to evolve past the point where we accept a team being named “The Redskins.” I mean, come on–it’s so obviously obscene and stupid and degrading, not just to American Indians but to all of us. If that change has to be preceded by ones like this change at U of I, as I believe is the case, then so be it.

    I work at Arapahoe Community College, an institution that is named for the Native American people who were virtually destroyed and their remnants driven off about 150 years ago so European immigrants could have the gold and the land and the timber around here. Don’t BS me–it happened, it was ugly going in both directions, and I find nothing about it inspires me with pride. You believe whatever you want about it and label me whatever you like based on my assessment. I don’t care and it won’t change what happened.

    I advise the student newspaper, which changed its name this year to the Arapahoe Free Press. At the time, I recommended that the editor get in touch with a leading member of the Arapaho tribe to discuss the choice to use their name for the paper.

    I had no particular agenda in recommending this beyond opening a dialogue. I was curious what the students might learn from doing so. I was curious how an Arapaho might represent his/her people on the matter. I even thought it might be a good way to create positive motion and connection to these people whose name for themselves–no doubt sacred in their tradition–the college borrowed at its inception 40 years ago. Unfortunately, the student editor did not follow through on this. I will suggest it again to the next student editor. And again, and again, until it happens.

    This represents, in my mind, where we have to go in the future. I’m frustrated by people who freak out any time this kind of sensitivity to issues of race and history are brought up. I don’t have to be labeled as average guy or academic (though I suspect that’s about to happen) to have a viable opinion on this and I’m certainly not interested in arm-wrestling over who had the “majority of votes” on the matter. If we simply went with the majority on things, we’d still be living in the Dark Ages and burning old women at the stake for nothing more than knowing which herbs in the forest could relieve a headache.

    The way forward–what is the way forward? I believe it begins with mutual respect, not in stubbornly being the one who shouts the loudest about what his basketball team is named. Racial hatred has given us too much bloodshed and misery in our past and it continues to fuel the worst violence on the planet now. If we survive as a species, it will be in part because we overcome this problem. I stand with Joe on this one and applaud the move being made by the University of Illinois. I’ll applaud even louder when Washington NFL changes its mascot to something that doesn’t insult us all.

  8. Ronnie Says:

    In regards to the Chief controversy, I like Jerry, don’t really have an opinion one way or the other. However I add this point of context to consider, a very long time ago when I was active in the Boy Scouts of America we honored the indian nation/traditions in many, many ways. The spirit, courage, skill,discipline and teamwork the indian tribes reflected represented a code of conduct that effected all of my lessons learned through my years in the Boy Scouts, and becoming a man. One of the time honored traditions that I was fortunate to be a part of was the indian dance program that trained me to be the feature dancer, traveling around the Penna. area performing various dances that reflected so many different aspects of the indian culture: getting ready for battle…celebrating a good hunt…boys becoming men…marriage….birth of a little one etc. With this knowledge I can definitely understand why any college would want to embrace the indian culture if it had roots and history in the area. One can also argue that because of the high standards the indian culture reflects, sports teams and mascots try to embrace these traditions and keep them alive for all to understand, learn by and honor. As far as being offensive…I’ll let that debate go for another day……besides I’m still plenty fired up over this “Fighting Irish” thing going on at Notre Dame…..I’m part Irish and I just don’t get it…..

  9. Anonymous Says:

    There was an Illini tribe. Of course they’ve been killed or relocated during the “Tyranny of the majority” phase of American history.
    What’s left of them live in Oklahoma.
    Which makes it rather difficult to protest anything taking place in Illinois.

    Not to put words in Becky’s mouth but she seems to argue it might be better if we were less comfortable with appropriation and assimilation of cultural markers from indigenous peoples. Maybe the UI board of trustees just didn’t want to be associated with this particular hallmark of genocide either.

    The question should be this: will the elimination of these mascots contribute to the discussion about the evils of genocide or contribute to the common American’s denial that genocide took place? The online poll loosely cited by Jerry indicates that the latter is likely. Priveleged, white Americans think this country is theirs and everything that came with it.

    becky you’re not an average American citizen. You’re educated and can think critically.

  10. Jerry Says:

    Mr Anonymous,

    “You’re not an average citizen. You’re educated and can think clearly.”

    Congrats, Anonymous! You have just managed to insult much of the world’s population. That comment is among the most offensive remarks that I’ve heard in a long time. It’s frightening when one starts to believe that those who agree with him or her are “educated and think clearly”, while those who disagree are surely uneducated.
    Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, you clearly demonstrate the type of intellectual elitism that sickens me. Although thankfully rare, I have heard similar remarks about the ignorance of the general populace….often times coming from people with post-graduate degrees (would you happen to have one)? Every fiber of my body disagrees! In terms of clear thinking, I see little difference between the “uneducated” and those who write initials such as MS, MBA, MD, or PhD behind their name. (I think I’m qualified to make that statement. I was educated at Washington University in St. Louis and, in fact, do have a post-graduate degree.)
    Fortunately for the Native Americans, clear thinkers such as yourself have made this world a better place by eliminating a harmless half-time pep rally!

  11. WisconsinNole Says:

    For those interested, here are websites that describe Florida State’s use of the Seminole name and the tradition of Chief Osceola and Renegade. The University has the full support of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. I don’t think the Seminoles or Chief Osceola are going anywhere.

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