Chief Illiniwek

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Chief Illiniwek logo

Chief Illiniwek, also known as "The Chief," is the former symbol of Illinois athletics at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees retired the symbol on February 16, 2007. Although the issue of Chief Illiniwek's controversial representation of a racist symbol had been brought to the board's attention, the decision to retire the symbol came only when the NCAA promised to lift athletic sanctions against the university when it retired the Chief, which the NCAA deemed "hostile." Chief Illiniwek represented the campus's athletics for 81 years.

As part of the board's agreement with the NCAA, the athletics of the Urbana-Champaign's campus can still be referred to as the "Fighting Illini"; however, the university must not use the Chief Illiniwek logo, or the names "Chief Illiniwek" or "Chief."

The university returned the buckskin costume and other regalia to the executive committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Nation. Whether a visual replacement of Chief Illiniwek will perform at athletic events' half-time shows remains to be seen.



Chief Illiniwek's dance is derived from the native "fancy dance" style popular today. However, the origins of the Chief Illiniwek dance were rooted in Lester Leutwiler's performances, which were authentic native dances. However, these dances were based on Sioux tradition and had no connection to any native group in the state of Illinois. The dance has since evolved with each Chief portrayer adding or changing components to mirror their respective expression. The dance is thought to have been somewhat standardized in the 1970s.

Dan Maloney, who played the role of Chief Illiniwek for the university's final athletic season, discussed and signed the book "Chief Illiniwek: A Tribute to an Illinois Tradition," on August 2, 2007, at the Borders Bookstore in Champaign.

The university's marching band, the [Marching Illini], previously separated the "I-L-L-I-N-I" formation into "I-L-L" and "I-N-I" while performing during athletic half-time shows, creating a gap for Chief Illiniwek to perform. After the retirement of the Chief, the Marching Illini no longer creates such a gap.


The Chief Illiniwek tradition stirred much controversy on the Urbana-Champaign campus in its 81 years. While the Chief was uncontested for most of its history, protests against the symbol started to intensify in the late 1980s. The controversy surrounding the Chief was thought to be one factor leading to former Chancellor Nancy Cantor's leave. Cantor was a vocal opponent of Chief Illiniwek.

Charlene Tetters was a notable figure in the movement to retire Chief Illiniwek, protesting outside of Assembly Hall early on in the debate. Since that time a slew of groups have been formed to advocate the removal of the Chief Illiniwek tradition in addition to furthering other issues. Groups such as the "Progressive Resource/Action Cooperative" (PRC) were formed strictly to oppose the Chief Illiniwek tradition. Another notable group includes the "STOP" Coalition (Students Transforming Oppression and Privilege).

Board of Trustees member Lawrence Eppley researched in 2003 to determine if campus faculty members, staff and students could compromise regarding the use of Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of the Urbana-Champaign campus's athletics; Eppley's conclusion was that they could not.

Board of Trustees member Frances G. Carroll of Chicago introduced a resolution in 2004 to retire the Chief. She withdrew her resolution later in response to student and alumni protest.

During the spring 2007 semester, STOP held a campus-wide forum in Foellinger Auditorium in response to racist comments posted on the social networking site, Facebook, and to the Tacos and Tequila party. University administrators were questioned heavily over the Chief Illiniwek tradition and the party.

Last Dance

Illini Productions produced a Chief Illiniwek video, most of whose footage contained the chief's last dance on February 21, 2007, at the last men's basketball game of the season.



The retirement of Chief Illiniwek, announced on February 16, 2007, reflected the controversial nature of the symbol and drew scrutiny from the university community. In the early morning at the university's Research Park, Board of Trustees Chair Larry Eppley announced that Chief Illiniwek would no longer perform as the official symbol of the University of Illinois. Eppley stated at the time that he had informally polled the members of the board and had come to this conclusion. This statement immediately drew criticism and conspiracy allegations as it seemed to violate the State of Illinois' sunshine laws and the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Eppley later denied that an Open Meetings Act violation had occurred and insisted that the policy would be later affirmed by an official vote of the board. Meanwhile, Trustee David Dorris of LeRoy, Illinois and the voting Student Trustee, Sarah Doyle of Springfield, both stated that they were not consulted by chairman Eppley.

The board later did ratify the Chief Illiniwek retirement voting in a March 13th, 2007 meeting to finalize the University's "consensus conclusion." During the meeting several speakers addressed the Board of Trustees to advocate on the Chief Illiniwek issue. Speaking in favor of retaining the Chief Illiniwek tradition was Howard Wakeland, former president of the Honor the Chief Society, and speaking against Chief Illiniwek was graduate student Genevieve Tenoso.

Prior to the vote trustee David Dorris addressed the board stating his reasons for voting against the resolution, primarily arguing that endorsing the resolution would be projecting an attitude of shame towards the legacy. Dorris also cited that he was personal friends with many involved with the Chief Illiniwek tradition and that he could do them no such dishonor. A majority of this speech was printed in the Bloomington Pantagraph as an opinion editorial after the meeting.

The controversy regarding the Chief Illiniwek retirement has continued to plague the campus administration. In August Chancellor Richard Herman canceled an unannounced trip to South Dakota to return the Frank Fools Crow regalia used by Chief Illiniwek since 1983. The trip was canceled after a story by Christine Des Garennes of the News-Gazette wrote of the incident and state Representative Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) announced that the return of the regalia would violate state law under the Illinois Surplus Properties Act. Herman would later announce that the regalia would be "put in moth balls."

Trail of Cheers

Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sent correspondent Aasif Mandvi to It's Brother's Bar and Grill on the Urbana-Champaign campus on April 25, 2007, to discuss the retirement of Chief Illiniwek.

The segment, titled "Trail of Cheers," first aired May 2, 2007, and featured associate professor of American Indian studies, LeAnne Howe, "Student activist/Imperialist" Jack McMillan, and "Fighting Illini tribesman" JP Korlec.

Korlec erred in the segment when he said "The Board of Trustees, who I believe is all Caucasian, got rid of the Native American chief." At the time the board retired Chief Illiniwek, two of its 10 members—Frances G. Carroll and James D. Montgomery—were of African-American descent and Niranjan S. Shah was of Indian descent.

The segment made no reference to the sanctions imposed by the NCAA, and in that the retirement of Chief Illiniwek would allow the university to compete in athletic events overseen by the NCAA.

Chief Illiniwek was also referenced during the skit "New College Mascots" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien during summmer 2007, suggesting that the Chief should be succeeded by "S&M Lincoln."

Homecoming parade 2007

A 2007 Homecoming policy approved by the Chancellor's office would also draw harsh criticism from the community, eventually leading to a reversal. The policy originally stated that students would be banned from participating in the University's homecoming parade if they wore Chief Illiniwek clothing or sported the Chief Illiniwek logo in any manner. The policy originated from a standard that floats in the parade would not be allowed to display the copyrighted Chief logo, but was expanded to be parade-wide.

After the Daily Illini [1]covered the policy, community members reacted with criticism of what appeared to be a violation of first amendment rights. An open letter signed by 17 State Legislators was sent to University President, B. Joseph White, the News-Gazette ran an editorial criticizing the policy, and the pro-Chief student group, Students For Chief Illiniwek stated their intention to march in the parade donning Chief apparel, as protected under their first amendment rights.

The day prior to the Parade, the University issued a release stating that Chancellor Herman had reviewed the policy and that the University would allow the image of the Chief to be presented in the parade, should students wish to express that. The incident drew national attention and was covered by the New York Times[2].

Recently, trustee David Dorris confirmed many suspicions that the Illiniwek retirement decision was reached in an under-handed manner, stating during a November 3, 2007 "Saturday Sportsline" interview on WDWS with Jim Turpin and Loren Tate, that the public would be upset if they "knew what I know." Dorris additionally stated that he would reveal his knowledge were he to be subpoenaed.

Logo and Merchandise

Graphic designer Jack Davis, who created the Chief Illiniwek logo for $210 in 1980, applied for a trademark of the logo in March 2007. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected Davis' application, citing that the university had already registered the logo.

Davis then filed a lawsuit against the university to re-obtain the logo's trademark rights and entitlement to a portion of profits received by the logo's use. Davis claimed that an oral agreement with former UI associate athletic director Vance Redfern would give Davis the logo's trademarks should its use be discontinued. U.S. Central District of Illinois Chief Judge Michael McCuskey dismissed the suit July 7, 2008, ruling that the federal court has no jurisdiction for the breach-of-contract claim. McCuskey also ruled that claims by Davis were barred by immunity laws that prohibit suits against the state. Davis' lawyer, Bob Auler, said he would try to file the lawsuit in another jurisdiction.

Bearing the retirement of Chief Illiniwek, merchandise bearing the Chief Illiniwek logo, the words "Chief Illiniwek," "Chief" or any derivation thereof had been in high demand until the university asked manufacturers to stop making Chief merchandise by December 31, 2007. However, the university itself is planning to sell some Chief Illiniwek merchandise, such as hats and shirts, through the company College Vault. The items will be sold online only, according to university spokesperson Robin Kaler. The university was creating a limited number of items because if a party did not make use of any owned trademarks, the trademark could fall out of ownership.

College Vault subsidiary Tailgate Vintage Clothing had no Illinois merchandise at this time.

Referendum campus vote

The registered student organization Students for Chief Illiniwek collected the minimum number of student signatures in February, 2008, required to bring the non-binding referendum question of reinstating the chief as the symbol of the Urbana-Champaign campus' athletics on the ballot of the campus' student elections.

Of more than 10,300 students who voted in the student selection, 7,718 students (79%) voted in favor of reinstating the Chief as the campus athletics symol, and 2,052 (21%) voted against reinstatement.

Students voted in 2004: 9,161 (69%) in favor of keeping the Chief and 4,027 (31%) against.

Replacement symbol

Chancellor Richard Herman said he had no current intention of pursing a new symbol. Herman said the university needed time to "reflect and distance" after the Chief's retirement.

The Council of Chiefs, an organization composed of former Chief Illiniwek portrayers, selected engineering student Logan Ponce of St. Charles, Ill., as the 37th Chief Illiniwek on April 28, 2008. Rob Zaldivar of Palatine, Ill., as the assistant Chief Illiniwek.

"The Next Dance"

Ruth Sierra, a senior in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, announced the event "Students for the Chief Presents: the Next Dance," a rally portraying Chief Illiniwek, as a Facebook event. The registered student organization Students for Chief Illiniwek organized the event to occur at Assembly Hall on November 15, 2008, to allow Logan Ponce to dance in a replica of the Chief Illiniwek outfit.

The event occured after the Fighting Illini's football game against Ohio State. Its duration was between 30 and 45 minutes and presented guest speakers and a multimedia show. The show was free for i-Card holders and cost $5 for the general public while children 12 and under were admitted free with a paying adult. The show's cost to Students for Chief Illiniwek was stated as over $15,000, and proceeds are to go to the Grand Village of the Kickapoo Project in LeRoy, Illinois. Over 10,000 people attended.

Students for Chief Illiniwek President Roberto Martell called the event a "rallying point for the Illini Nation" and only the beginning. The university did not sponsor the event and warned that use of the word "Illiniwek" for the event is an infringement on the Chief Illiniwek trademark, which is owned by the university.

In attendance were Illinois state representative (and U.S. House representative-elect) Aaron Shock (R-92), state representative Chapin Rose (R-110), university board of trustee members David Dorris and Paul Schmitt, and student body president Jaclyn O'Day. The Illini lost the football game to Ohio State, 20-30.