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Chancellor Releases Panel Report With Ideas On Moving Past Chief Illiniwek

chief illiniwek in 2006

U of I marching band and Chief Illiniwek portrayer - taken on November 11, 2006 flickr/soundfromwayout

A commission with members on both sides of the Chief Illiniwek debate is recommending ways to move forward together --- twelve years after the University of Illinois retired the controversial symbol. But Chief supporters were criticizing the 14-member panel's findings on the day they were issued.

Chancellor Robert Jones says he hopes the suggestions from the Commission on Native Imagery's report, released on Friday, can help all sides move past what he terms “anger and blaming”.

“The overarching charge was, how do we find a future without Chief Illiniwek?” said Jones referring to the student-portrayed Indian chief that appeared at Illinois home football and basketball halftimes and other events from  1926 until 2007, when university trustees, under pressure from the NCAA, ended the practice. “How do we define a future to really honor Native American heritage and culture in ways that are not offensive to anyone? In ways that put Native Nations at the core of our academic mission, as we move forward to really work on what Native communities say are really important, not what the university thinks that is important.” 

Suggestions For Meeting Four Goals

The commission made suggestions to meet four goals set by Jones and summarized in the report: “Provide closure, healing and reconciliation for stakeholders; facilitate the establishment of new traditions; remember the history of the Chief --- with a focus on both the intent and impact of the tradition; honor and partner with the Native Nations for whom Illinois is their ancestral home.”

One of the commission’s specific suggestions is the holding of a “significant public event” for the formal and public retirement of Chief Illiniwek, which would include both Native American students and the Council of Chiefs (a group of former Chief Illiniwek portrayers). “The event should serve as both closure for the past and the pivot to the future”, the commission’s report said.

The commission also suggested a web-based history of “the Illini, Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek Tradition” that includes “the origin of the (Illini and Chief Illiniwek) symbols inclusive of the original intent”, but also showing how “public understanding” of such use of Native imagery in sports is now seen “by many as an inaccurate misappropriation of Native American culture”.  

The report also outlines a process for the development of “new traditions” for the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus “that do not rely upon Native American images or traditions”.

And the commission suggests that the university establish relationships with Native American tribes and organizations, and collaborate on ongoing activities. The university largely avoided any formal ties with tribal governments or other Native American organizations during the long-running dispute over Chief Illiniwek.

Report Quickly Criticized

Following the report's release, its suggestions were quickly condemned by supporters of the Chief, some of them members of the commission. 

“Very disappointed in the Chancellor’s Chief #illini report,” tweeted Dan Maloney, a commission member who was the last authorized Chief Illiniwek portrayer, when University of Illinois trustees announced the Chief’s retirement in 2007. “Pro-chief viewpoints were ignored and dismissed throughout the process. I can’t and won’t support the findings and neither will the other Pro-chief members. The whole process was flawed from the beginning.”

Ivan Dozier, son of commission member Ivan Dozier, Sr., criticized the stipulation that Native American imagery would not be allowed in any of the university's "new traditions". The younger Dozier, who has noted his Cherokee ancestry in defending Chief Illiniwek, was one of the portrayers of the unofficial Chief, sponsored by the Council of Chiefs after the university ended official appearances. In a Facebook posting, Dozier referred to the commission’s report as “the chancellor’s report”, and argued that not allowing Native imagery in future university traditions amounted to “racist and discriminatory policies against indigenous peoples”. He called for people to email Jones “and let him know that the path to an INCLUSIVE ILLINOIS does not start with EXCLUDING NATIVE AMERICANS!”

In addition to Chief supporters, some opponents of the Chief were unhappy with the report’s suggestions as well. The group Fighting Illinois’ Racist Mascots (or FIRM) criticized the report for suggestions such as a public retirement event and a history website that would respect what Chief Illiniwek had meant over the years to its supporters. In a Facebook posting, the group noted that Chancellor Jones had said at an Indigenous Peoples Day appearance that the failure to retire the Chief sooner had been harmful to Native American students.

“Any tribute or honoring of this racist tradition would be completely inconsistent with this message,” said FIRM, “and with the damage that has been inflicted on Native American students through this hostile and abusive appropriation.”

Chancellor: Not All Will Agree, Not Even Commission Members

Speaking on Friday afternoon, as criticism of the commission’s report was already appearing, Chancellor Jones said that he understood that not all of the panel’s members agreed with the four main goals that were assigned to them. He did not seem surprised by what he called “some very vocal and visceral reactions” to the report. But Jones said he would be moving ahead with developing a process for pursuing at least some of the report’s recommendations.

“At the end of the day, my obligation is to protect and to advance the culture and the academic excellence of the university,” said Jones. “And this is one of the issues that stand in the way of us moving forward as an institution. Climate is critically important, and having respect for people from different cultural backgrounds is at the core of what I’ve tried to work on during my more than 43 years in higher education.”

The Commission on Native Imagery grew out of the “Critical Conversations”, public meetings held by the Chancellor’s Office in April and May of last year, meant to bring people on all sides of the Chief Illiniwek controversy together for constructive dialog. The commission met from November of last year to April of this year.

Beside Maloney and Dozier, the commission’s members also included former unofficial Chief portrayer Omar Cruz; U of I American Indian Studies program director Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert; Lauren Kirby, president of the Native American Indigenous Students organization on campus until her graduation this spring; and Craig Harper, chief of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. Other members were marketing executive and former Illinois football player Ron Bess, U of I Dept. of Communication Chairman John Caughlin, alumna and U of I College of Law Dean’s Advisory Board member Jane Hays, U of I student senator Vikram Sardana, Division of Intercollegiate Athletics staff members Martin Kaufmann and Illini Union director and former Native American House director Jamie Singson.

The commission’s co-chairs were Eric J. Jolly, a psychologist, former university administrator and head of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations, whose father is Cherokee; and Caterpillar executive and former Illinois football player Stu Levenick. The commission secretary was Latina/Latino Studies & Media and Cinema Studies Prof. Isabel Molina-Guzman.

CORRECTION: The initial version of this news story incorrectly referred to commission member Ivan Dozier, Sr. as Ivan A. Dozier, the senior Dozier's son. The error has been corrected. - JM 6/10/19