The Chief Illiniwek Dialogue Report



Despite continuous performances by Chief Illiniwek since 1926, the earliest signs of protest brought to our attention appeared in 1975. The following excerpt appeared in the University yearbook, Illio, in 1975:


Chief Illiniwek has been hailed as a symbol of University spirit since 1926. But while thousands have cheered his acrobatic gyrations during halftime, others look upon him with disgust.

"Chief Illiniwek is a mockery not only of Indian customs but also of white people's culture," said Bonnie Fultz, Citizens for the American Indian Movement (AIM) executive board member. According to Fultz, the continued use of Indian history as entertainment degrades the Indian and disgraces the white race by revealing an ignorance of tribal cultures.

"The Illiniwek exhibition is tantamount to someone putting on a parody of a Catholic Mass," Norma Linton, Citizens for AIM member and visiting anthropology lecturer at the University said. She continued by saying that Chief Illiniwek is an inaccurate composite.

"The Indians within the Illinois area are of a different tribal culture. The idea of symbols from several different tribes mashed together angers Indians," she added. "They do not want their individual tribal customs combined and distorted, but want their traditions to remain separate and unique. "

Mike Gonzalez, the current Chief, said that the only requirement in being considered for the position is an eagle spread jump. However, Gonzalez felt that Illiniwek is "majestic" and a symbol of fighting spirit. "In no way does it degrade the American Indian," Gonzalez said. "I think Illiniwek honors the Indian. "

John Bitzer, Illiniwek from 1970-73, also defended the role. "Other university mascots are just caricatures but Illiniwek portrays the Indians as they would want to be portrayed. "

Rep. A. Webber Borchers, R-Decatur, the originator of the costume while a student at the University, also spoke in defense of Chief Illiniwek. "It's the most outstanding tradition of any university in the land, with no intention of disrespect to the Indians," he said.

University officials have sensed the Chief Illiniwek controversy. The symbol of Chief Illiniwek was removed from University stationary this year to appease AIM. Everett Kissinger, coordinator of Chief Illiniwek and marching band director, was indignant about the controversy. "Illiniwek has been a tradition here since 1926, and I don't want you people (reporters) opening up a lot of problems about it," he said. Kissinger in turn has ordered Gonzalez to avoid radio interviews and large-scale publicity about his role as Chief.

1975 to 1989

From 1975 to 1989, little attention appears to have been paid to the issue on the campus. In 1989, however, student Charlene Teters, a member of the Spokane Tribe, began protesting the presence of the Chief at athletic events. Through her efforts, anti-Chief protests began on campus. Later, she was joined by national groups of American Indian activists which began concerted attempts to eliminate not only the Chief, but other school and professional team symbols, mascots, names, logos, etc. , that in any way referenced Indians signs or people. The results of these efforts are set forth later in this report at Section VII.

Student Government Association Action

In October 1989, the Student Government Association (SGA) considered a resolution that would have encouraged the elimination of the Chief calling the halftime performance "discriminatory. "At that time a "Dial a Vote" promotion among the students resulted in a response of 2,002 voting to retain the Chief and 100 voting against. At the SGA meeting the resolution was watered down to ask the University to study the issue. At the time, both sides claimed victory. However, in March 1991, the SGA passed a resolution declaring the Chief Illiniwek performance discriminatory and calling for programs for its elimination and for an apology to Native Americans.

1990 Action by the Board of Trustees

The unrest caused by the continued anti-Chief demonstrations in 1990 led to a hearing by the University Board of Trustees regarding continued use of the Chief. On October 11,1990, the Board heard from Charlene Teters, Faith Smith and a letter from Rev. Jesse Jackson offering arguments to abolish the Chief. Heard on behalf of the position to retain the Chief were former University trustee Jane Hayes Rader of the Illinois Alumni Association, former Chief Illiniwek, William D. Forsyth, Jr. and a letter form Donald White. At that time, a 6-1 majority of the Board passed the following motion made by Trustee Hahn:

The tradition of Chief Illiniwek is a rich one and has meaning for the students, alumni, and friends of the University of Illinois. For more than sixty years, the Chief has been the symbol of the spirit of a great university and of our intercollegiate athletic teams, and as such is loved by the people of Illinois. The University considers the symbol to be dignified and has treated it with respect. His ceremonial dance is done with grace and beauty.

The Chief keeps the memory of the people of a great Native American tribe alive for thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise would know little or nothing of them.

I feel that those who view the Chief as a "mascot" or a "caricature" just don't understand the Chief's true meaning to thousands of U of I students and alumni - he is the spirit of the Fighting Illini. The tradition of Chief Illiniwek is a positive one and I move he be retained.


The Position of the Peoria Tribe

In 1995, the Peoria Tribe, the direct descendants of the remnants of the Illini Tribe, approved the use of the Chief by the University. At that time, during a WICD (the Champaign affiliate of NBC) broadcast, Chief Giles of the Peoria tribe stated:"To say that we are anything but proud to have these portrayals would be completely wrong. We're proud that the University of Illinois is the major institution in the state, a seat of learning, and they are drawing on that background of our having been there. And what more honor could they pay us. "As part of that same broadcast Ron Froman, an officer in the Peoria Tribe was quoted on the Chief Illiniwek Home Page as saying that the protestors do not speak for all Native Americans and certainly not for the Peoria Tribe. The Home Page continued that the opinions of the Peoria tribe members should bear more weight because they were the only descendants of the Illini. However, on April 20, 2000, after the Dialogue Intake Session of April 14, 2000, the Peoria Tribe passed a resolution by a vote of 3 to 2 requesting that the University cease the use of Chief Illiniwek.

Hostile Learning Environment?

In 1993, the Native American Student, Staff and Faculty for Progress (NASSFP) was formed on the Urbana campus, in part, to protest the Chief. Members of the organization began filing complaints in 1994 with the U. S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Those complaints alleged that the presence of Chief Illiniwek and the use of the name "Fighting Illini" created a hostile learning environment for Native Americans resulting in discrimination by the University in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Further the complaints alleged that the University officials did not respond appropriately to the concerns of the complainants.

OCR investigated those complaints and conducted an independent survey of Native American students. Based on its entire investigation, OCR reported to the University on November 30, 1995:

The alleged specific incidents of harassment, especially those of which the University had notice, were not proven to be sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive so as to establish a racially hostile environment. Most were isolated and not recent, having occurred between 1989 and 1992. Furthermore, there was insufficient corroborating evidence of most of these incidents.

Although the Chief Illiniwek symbol, logo, and the name "Fighting Illini" are offensive to the complainants and others interviewed by OCR, "offensiveness," in and of itself, is not dispositive in assessing a racially hostile environment claim under Title VI, particularly in light of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.


The entire report is found at Trustees' Appendix @ No. 4. As part of the Dialogue, a legal memo was submitted alleging that under the law, the presence of Chief Illiniwek does create a hostile learning environment. Because of the length of that legal memo it is not included in theTrustees' Appendix but can be found as No. 17741 in the General Submissions. No attempt will be made in this report to set forth the legal arguments on each side of the issue.

Legislative Action

In 1996, State Representative Rick Winkel, a University of Illinois alumnus, introduced a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. That bill as introduced and passed by the legislatureprovided:

Consistent with a long-standing, proud tradition, the General Assembly hereby declares that Chief Illiniwek, is and shall remain, the honored symbol of a great University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


After an amendatory veto by Governor Jim Edgar, the bill became law effective June 1, 1996. The amendatory veto changed the "shall remain" to "may remain" to let the issue remain a University decision. (See, 110 ILCS 305/1f. )

In Whose Honor?

In 1997, a documentary entitled "In Whose Honor?" appeared on PBS. Written and produced by Jay Rosenstein, a 1982 University of Illinois graduate and now an assistant professor in the U of I Department of Journalism, the film had a definite anti-Chief point of view. At the beginning of the film, the following quote appears on the screen:

It has ever been the way of the white men in relation to the Indian, first, to sentimentalize him as a monster until he has been killed off, and second to sentimentalize him in retrospect as the noble savage.

James Gray, "The Illinois" 1940


The primary focus of the film was anti-Chief activist Charlene Teters. The film showed clips of Ms. Teters during the various stages of her efforts to eliminate Chief Illiniwek and Indian logos, etc. used by other schools and professional teams.

During the documentary the following statements were made:

1. Chief Illiniwek should be eliminated, just as black face entertainers and Frito Bandito have disappeared.

2. The performance is a distortion of a religious ceremony.

3. The Chief music is "Hollywood Indian" whereas American Indian music sounds like a heartbeat.

4. In 1989, then U. S. Senator Paul Simon signed an anti-Chief petition.

5. In 1989, Chancellor Morton Weir, while supporting the Chief, caused the University to cease using Indian caricatures, and he ordered that the "I" painted on the Chief's chin be removed.

6. Despite the University of Illinois' elimination of caricatures, other schools used Indian caricatures on their campus on football weekends when Illinois was the opponent, at times showing them hanging in effigy, to the insult of Native American students and visitors.

7. The Universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa passed resolutions refusing to schedule teams with Indian logos except to comply with Big Ten requirements.

8. In 1994, UIUC Chancellor Aiken formed a committee to report on how the University might make the campus more inclusive. Though part of a preliminary draft, reference to the Chief was dropped from the final report.

9. The University of Illinois loves a manufactured Chief.

10. The University must listen to people who say "ouch. "


U of I trustees Susan Gravenhorst and Thomas Lamont were interviewed by Rosenstein and portions of their interviews asserting their pro-Chief positions appeared in the film. Recently, at the July 20, 2000 meeting of the Board of Trustees, they were two of the three trustees casting votes opposing the appointment of Jay Rosenstein as an assistant professor of journalism. Their objections were based on the ground that Rosenstein had been less than honest concerning his true intentions when he had approached them. They said that Rosenstein hadtold that the remarks were being filmedfor a project connected with his graduate studies. Additionally they stated that they had refused to sign waivers when Rosenstein had requested that they do. In light of and in support her fellow trustees' statements, Judith Reese also opposed the appointment.

Reaction On Campus

The 1997 release of the documentary gave rise to increased debate about the Chief on the Urbana campus. In 1998, the Faculty-Student Senate passed a resolution by a vote of 97 to 29 calling for the end of Chief Illiniwek. Pro-Chief advocates complained of what they described as the stacked nature of the proceedings. They observed that only 126 members of the 250 member senate attended the session. The agreed list of speakers, two student pro-Chief and two student anti-Chief, had been enlarged without notice to include three additional anti-Chief activists: Charlene Teters, Bill Winneshiek and Prof. Brenda Farnell. As to the list of faculty members presented by Prof. Stephen Kaufman as favoring the elimination of the Chief, the opposition remarked that 695 represented only 36% of the 1900 faculty members.

Since that time, the following UIUC departments have passed similar resolutions calling for the end of the Chief:



College of Medicine

Center for African Studies


Social Work

School of Life Sciences

Senate Committee on Equal Opportunity



School of Life Sciences

Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences

Counseling Center

The following UIUC organizations have joined the protest with similar resolutions:

Red Roots

Asian-American Association

American Indian Studies Network

Alpha Kappa Delta

Black Organizations Joint Petition

Latino/a Studies Program

La Casa Cultural Latina

Native American Students, Staff and Faculty for Progress

Union of Professional Employees

Counseling Center Staff

Episcopal Church Foundation

Asian/Pacific American

Center for African Studies Advisory Association Committee

African American Cultural Program

Central Black Student Union

Mariama31. Ewezo

Black Greek Council

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

Phi Rho Eta Fraternity

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority

Iota Phi Theta Fraternity

Sigma Gamma Rho

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority

Men of Impact

Muslin Student Association

Native American Student Organization

Palestinian Student Organization

Hillel Jewish Cultural Center


Organization for Under-Represented Scientists


Pandora's Rag

Professional Students for Social Responsibility

Puerto Rican Student Association

Rainforest Action Group


Students for a Real Democracy

Student-Faculty Senate

Undergraduate Association of

University YMCA and University

Student Anthropologists

YMCA Student Program Fund

Women's Studies Program


In addition to University departments passing resolutions, there has been significant individual faculty response. A Swanlund Chair is the most prestigious named chair that the University awards. Eleven of the thirteen current professors awarded Swanlund Chairs have signed a resolution calling for the retirement of the Chief and an end to licensing Native American Indian symbols as representations of the University.

Currently, there are nineteen professors appointed as Professor for Advanced Study, an honor of high academic distinction. Thirteen of these professors have recommended retirement of the Chief. Four of those are included also as Swanlund Chairs opposing the Chief.

A petition signed by 790 faculty members calling for elimination also has been forwarded to the Board of Trustees.

Reportedly, at all times the majority of the Alumni Association has backed the continuance of Chief Illiniwek.

The North Central Association Report

The North Central Association (NCA) in its regular 10-year evaluation report on continuation of accreditation, devoted considerable discussion to the Chief controversy. Rather than summarize those references to Chief Illiniwek, those references are set forth verbatim in Section VI. While emphasizing that the choice of a school symbol is not an issue for accreditation, the report was critical of the manner in which the University was addressing the issue. Shortly after the NCA report, the Board of Trustees voted to establish the current Dialogue leading to this report.

Reaction Beyond the Campus

The controversy has existed and still persists beyond the campus. A number of organizations unrelated to the University have issued statements or resolutions addressing the issue of the continued use of Indian related sports designations in general and the existence of Chief Illiniwek in particular. The National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media (NCRSM) has furnished to the Dialogue the names of those 52 organizations (outside of UIUC) and a description of their documents. Some of the documents are not specifically directed to Chief Illiniwek, but are included for completeness in Trustees' Appendix @No. 5.

Prof. Stephen Kaufman has submitted a list of 176 organizations which have spoken out on the Chief Illiniwek issue. Several of those on that list have been included previously in the (NCRSM) submission. The same is true of a list of 14 organizations furnished by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The lists may be found in the Trustees' Appendix @ No 6 & No. 7 respectively.