Death of the Chief

Oct. 10, 1942, was up to then the best day of my life. I had talked my father, University of Illinois class of ’22, into taking me at age 11 along with him to homecoming weekend. On a golden autumn afternoon, lowly Illinois upset Minnesota, the Midwest football powerhouse. And, for the first time, I was privileged to watch Chief Illiniwek proudly dance down the field to Indian war music.

The last time I watched the Chief was Sept. 16, 2006. It will be the last time I ever see this 81-year-old symbol of my alma mater. The board of trustees last week eliminated Chief Illiniwek, bowing to years of pressure from Native American activists, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and liberal politicians.

This is a melancholy moment for me, many other Illinois alumni and university officials (including President B. Joseph White). The university has been forced to yield to blackmail. The death of the Chief epitomizes some unsavory aspects of contemporary American public life: political correctness, hypocrisy and bureaucratic tyranny.

Only a small minority of Native Americans is shown by polls to oppose Indian nicknames in sports. The campaign against them gained momentum only when the NCAA, which can hardly cope with policing athlete misconduct and illegal payments in college sports, crusaded against dozens of colleges in the name of political correctness. The NCAA, under Myles Brand’s presidency, labeled Chief Illiniwek one of the "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots."

But the Chief is no mascot (the university calls him a symbol). The big-headed depiction of the father of this country at The George Washington University, the turtle representing the University of Maryland and the Demon Deacon for Wake Forest are mascots. Such college mascots are comical figures who engage in sham battles with each other and go into the stands to hug children. Chief Illiniwek did not. He was always austere and dignified.

The accusation that Illinois and other schools degrade Native Americans is absurd. These schools picked Indian symbols in admiration of their valor, ferociousness and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. Native Americans were honored in naming states. Illinois is Algonquin for "tribe of superior men." Indiana means the "land of the Indians."

The NCAA originally demanded that the University of Illinois not only dump the Chief but also drop the Fighting Illini nickname. Would Brand next demand that the states of Illinois and Indiana change their names (sticky for the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis)? The NCAA backed away from its ban on the Fighting Illini, but not on Chief Illiniwek.

That may seem irrational but less so than NCAA approval of Florida State University’s use of the Seminole nickname and Chief Osceola (no less dignified than Chief Illiniwek) riding his horse at football games to the tune of Indian war chants. Florida State passed the Brand test because of approval from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which receives scholarship aid from the university. The University of Illinois cannot make such an arrangement because the original Illini were wiped out in inter-tribal wars in the 1760s.

Stanford led capitulation to political correctness, changing from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972. Other schools — such as the University of North Dakota trying to remain the Fighting Sioux — have fought a losing battle. The NCAA was disingenuous when it claimed, in declaring victory over the Chief last Friday, that it "never mandated" that colleges "change their mascots." In fact, it rejected Illinois sponsorship of an NCAA event and was ready to prevent Illinois from hosting a National Invitational Tournament basketball game. Such sanctions threatened Illinois’ recruiting of non-revenue sports athletes.

Chief Illiniwek finally was done in by politicians jumping on the NCAA’s political correctness bandwagon. Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones Jr., no friend of the university, warned that trustees might not be confirmed unless they dumped the Chief, and university officials feared their appropriations coming under attack.

While I can understand dumping the Chief, I don’t like it. I could react by withdrawing from my long-range commitments to support the University of Illinois, but I won’t. That would put me in the same class as the petty bureaucrats and politicians who killed Chief Illiniwek.