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Wisch: My Plea For U. of I. To Embrace Its Native American Heritage

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) From controversial NFL nicknames to the NCAA's so-called "hostile and abusive imagery" to the wrangling over trademark rights for the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek logo, there's a whole lot of talk these days about what people shouldn't do regarding Native American heritage.

But why don't more people talk about what we should do?

And what we can.

Yes, U. of I., I'm looking at you.

On Tuesday, reported that as part of the Nike N7 initiative, four NCAA basketball teams will wear turquoise uniforms in November to honor Native American Heritage Month and help spread the popularity of the sport and other physical activities.

In partnership with Nike's N7 Fund – created to benefit Native American and Aboriginal communities in the United States and Canada – Florida State, Oregon State and New Mexico will each wear the jerseys for one game, while Nevada will wear it for two. Each of the four schools has ties to the Native American community, according to CBS Sports, although it's interesting that only Florida State uses – or has used – a nickname and imagery derived from a Native American tribe.

Knowing that Illinois is also a Nike-affiliated university and has a background deep-rooted in Native American iconography, I emailed the university on Wednesday asking if the Illini had been invited to take part in this season's turquoise-uniform initiative and whether it has a relationship with the Nike N7 Fund or is in discussions about developing one.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler informed me later in the day that neither the Office of Public Affairs nor the Athletic Media Relations Department had been aware of the N7 Fund or the uniform initiative before I alerted them to the topics that morning.

Hopefully now that Illinois is aware of the N7 Fund, the university will take action to get involved. Because what's beyond frustrating to me is how the flagship school of this state – named in honor of Native Americans – does so little to embrace the heritage of the proud people who were the first to live here and find ways to truly benefit them on a large scale.

I've long been a defender of the Chief Illiniwek tradition, but I've also always acknowledged how the Chief was never perfect. And it was the enormous failure of the university's administration to not work toward developing the symbol in more of an educational tool that could raise awareness about Native American heritage and tangibly benefit their communities.

Illinois only had, you know, eight decades to work on that.

Alas, it opted to instead just banish the Chief under NCAA duress and scrub all signs of Illiniwek from campus. Because of that extreme action, you might think that the University of Illinois doesn't have a relationship with the Native American community because the Native American community doesn't want to have a relationship with the University of Illinois.

But you'd also be wrong.

After all, back in May, the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed the university's banished symbol – submitted a plan to the U. of I. administration that would have brought back an adapted version of Chief Illiniwek for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis.

After months of discussions with the Council of Chiefs, the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma – one of the original Native American tribes of Illini Confederation – expressed willingness to be involved with adapting the Chief tradition, but only if the university itself was on board the idea.

Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, however, wasn't on board with anything and refused to consider the benefits of what was described as a non-dancing Chief whose appearances would be tied to fundraising activity for the Peoria Tribe, the U. of I. and Native American organization.

In June, I wrote that the proposal "sounded like a win-win. Illinois alumni, students and fans would be thrilled to see the Chief back on the field. The Peoria Tribe would be honored along with this state's heritage with a Native American student wearing regalia approved by the tribe. And the university, the Peoria and other Native American groups would benefit financially from monies raised through apparel sales or other revenue streams."

But rather than open their minds to the world of possibilities, Wise, the Board of Trustees and U. of I. president Robert Easter chose to instead slam doors shut with Easter saying, "We're in an era of our university where we really need to pull together and create our future as an institution of higher education. That's my focus."

That focus, Mr. President, should include actively seeking out ideas about how U. of I. can benefit Native Americans and also actually listening to the ideas that are brought to the university rather than simply dismissing them.

The University of Illinois is one of the leading institutions of higher education in the country. And to its administration, I'm asking that you finally embrace this state's heritage and do what you should have been doing for decades.

Jeff Pearl
Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago's North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

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