Perception, Not Intent, Relegates Chief Illiniwek to History
In Sunday's column, I angered a number of readers by adding new voices to a 30-year-old suggestion that the University of Illinois needs to find a replacement for the Chief. The university retired the popular, headress-wearing dancer in 2007 amid complaints of racism, but the Chief debate still rages.
Some fans who love and defend the Chief wrote thoughtful emails arguing that my column should be retracted. But I am not some sort of person who gives something and then takes it back.
There is nothing inherently racist in that last sentence, but I understand how some of you could be offended by it. We all have different perceptions, and sometimes we don't comprehend how others, especially those with minority opinions, could see things differently.
I was guilty of using an offensive word while writing my column about the Chief. Daily Herald Managing Editor Jim Baumann, one of several graduates of the University of Illinois among my bosses, saved me. I innocently wrote that the president of the Native American & Indigenous Student Organization on campus "spearheaded" the push to have students vote on a replacement for the Chief. It never occurred to me that anyone would see that word as a racist stereotype about Indians on the warpath. But Jim alerted me to that possibility and suggested we change it. I am grateful we did, as I don't want to offend.
Neither do most supporters of the Chief. The Chief began in 1926 when Boy Scout Lester Leutwiler made his own Indian costume and tom-tom and concocted a dance as his way to honor our first residents. Supporters of the Chief still see him as a noble tribute. The Chief was never some mascot out to get laughs by clowning around with Wisconsin's Bucky Badger or Brutus the Buckeye from Ohio State. His performances almost came across as sacred religious rituals, which also have no place at a public university's halftime show.
Several readers dismissed my arguments, noting I graduated from rival Northwestern, which, in spite of a student vote in 1972 in support of the Purple Haze, went from the Fighting Methodists to the Wildcats. I've been to games in Champaign, watched the Chief perform a dozen times, and understand how the moving and emotional Chief performances bring tears to the eyes and warm the hearts. …