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Wisch: Return Of Chief Illiniwek Proposed – And Ignored?

By Dave Wischnowsky-

(CBS) Banished from athletic events at the University of Illinois six years ago, Chief Illiniwek is now standing on the hypothetical sidelines in Champaign, holding a new proposal for his return.

But Chancellor Phyllis Wise won't let the Chief on the field.

Or even truly consider that possibility.

And speaking as an Illinois alum, that's just not right.

This morning, the Champaign News-Gazette broke the story that the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed the university's former symbol – has submitted a plan to the U. of I. administration that would bring back Chief Illiniwek for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis.

And here's the twist: the Peoria Tribe is actually involved.

According to the News-Gazette, the council's proposal calls for a Chief portrayer to appear on the field of two campus events in a year. There would be no dancing involved, and the Illiniwek costume would be developed by the Council of Chiefs in consultation with the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma – one of the original Native American tribes of the Illini Confederation.

"We felt the tradition still had value to alumni, students and the community," Council of Chiefs president Steve Raquel told the News-Gazette. "We've been working to come up with something that made sense, something that we felt was a win-win for the university, for alumni and for students."

In 2005, the NCAA passed a resolution declaring Native American mascots and imagery to be "hostile and abusive" and prohibited member schools such as Illinois from hosting postseason events. But that decree hardly meant that Native American imagery and mascots disappeared from college athletics.

Most notably, Florida State University sought and received official permission from the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue using Chief Osceola as its mascot and "Seminoles" as the school's nickname. With that tribal permission, FSU was granted a waiver from the NCAA rule.

A solution for Illinois' situation, however, wasn't so clear-cut. The original Illini were a loose confederation of 12 to 13 tribes in the upper Mississippi River Valley, of which none still reside in Illinois. But rather than seek out the approval of Oklahoma's Peoria Tribe – the closest existing link to the Illini – or brainstorm other potential compromises, university leaders instead decided to cut bait and simply dump the revered Chief Illiniwek, angering thousands of alumni who felt the 81-year-old tradition deserved more respect.

In March 2007, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees officially voted to end Chief Illiniwek's dance and the use of the Chief or any Native American imagery for the university or its athletic programs.

But the Chief didn't vanish. He has continued to exist in an unofficial form on campus, with the Council of Chiefs continuing to select and train a student Illini portrayer each year. The current Chief, Illinois student Ivan Dozier, is half-Cherokee.

In today's News-Gazette story, Raquel said that the Council of Chiefs is not seeking to restore Chief Illiniwek's status as the official symbol of the university but wanted to "bring him back to the field."

Most significantly, Raquel also added that, "The tribe has indicated to us if the university is willing, they're willing to move forward with discussions," and that as part of the proposal, the Council of Chiefs could raise money, perhaps up to $200,000 a year, for both the university and the Peoria Tribe.

That does sound like a win-win.

But the problem is that the university – or, at least, Chancellor Wise – is not willing to be truly open to anything. Speaking to the News-Gazette, Wise said she told the Council of Chiefs during a meeting in late April that she would not endorse a return of the Chief to any university-sponsored event, stating that Chief Illiniwek is part of the school's history, not its future.

"I'm seeking to find ways that we can memorialize and respect the (university's) past history and culture that included the Chief while we focus on the future. And bringing back the Chief is not in the future," Wise told The News-Gazette on Monday.

To that statement, my question is: Says who?

Last I checked, this state's flagship school isn't named the University of Phyllis Wise, it's named the University of Illinois.

The school doesn't – or, at least, sure shouldn't – belong to a single administrator, or even its entire administration. Rather, it belongs to its students, its alumni and the taxpayers who fund it.

In March, the university held a student referendum about Chief Illiniwek in which more than 11,500 students showed up and voted 4-to-1 in support of the Chief as the official school symbol. On Facebook, the Chief Illiniwek page has more than 57,000 followers, over half as many as the university itself. Thousands of fans still bellow the Chief's name at halftime of every Illini football and basketball home game. And this morning, a campus group originally organized to keep Chief Illiniwek from being replaced by a new mascot began rallying students to email school officials with their support for the symbol's potential return.

Based on all that, I'm quite certain that there are a great many Illinois students, alums and fans who would be very interested in hearing if Chief Illiniwek indeed can be part of the university's future – especially if the Chief had the support of the Peoria Tribe, and if the Peoria Tribe also could benefit from the Chief.

My hope is that Chancellor Wise will wise up and start listening to alumni and students, rather than dictating to them. Because from my vantage point, the door to the Chief's return appears to have been opened in a highly positive way for everyone involved, so why should the chancellor be the one allowed to slam it shut?

Jeff Pearl
The author. (credit: Jeff Pearl)

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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