The Chief

For some at the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek is a symbol of tradition and unity. For others, he's a symbol of thoughtlessness and ignorance. Neither side is really wrong.
Share |

Photo by Michael Bojda.

The boy was bored, so bored in fact that he felt no obligation to watch the game and instead busied himself flinging peanut shells at unsuspecting fans. His back facing the field of play, he never noticed the players leave for the locker room at halftime, not until the collective energy of the arena shifted, compelling the capacity crowd at Memorial Stadium to its feet. And so he stood with them, in intent pursuit of the source of the commotion.

The boy’s eyes locked on Chief Illiniwek, who was greeted with whoops, hollers, claps and stomps by the largest gathering of people the boy had ever seen, captivated by the buckskin regalia, the red eagle feathers of his headdress, the blaring brass of the band. More than anything, though, the boy saw someone like him revered in ways he had never imagined. He would grow to become a great believer in the Chief, this boy, who felt pride in ways he could not grasp, watching the stadium swell with adulation toward an American Indian, just like him.

The allure was undeniable. The boy could not take his eyes off the man on the field, with whom he felt a bond that transcended a shared heritage and was touched by the narcotic charge of those thousands of applauding hands. If everyone thinks he’s cool, the boy thought, maybe they’ll think I’m cool, too. Every orange-clad attendee, it seemed, loved Chief Illiniwek.

Who was he to disagree?

***

“When I get the headdress on, I’ll pause so you can get a picture,” Alex Dozier says to an inquiring usher in the chambers of the University of Illinois booster club. The waning minutes of a first half of basketball are heard in the periphery, a tableau of sneakers, buzzers and fans droning seven seconds ahead of the game being broadcast in the corner of the room.

The boy has become a young man, and it is game day, which means he is on the job. His office is the State Farm Center, where the Illinois men’s basketball team is hosting in-state rival Bradley. Dozier, a graduate student at the university, kicks off his Asics and removes his hoodie to reveal a buckskin ensemble that has been banished from these sidelines for close to a decade.

Alex’s father, Ivan, touches up the face paint, unhooks the headdress and places it atop his son’s head to complete the transformation. “A little less than 20 seconds,” Wyatt, Alex’s younger brother, says, checking the clock. The usher finishes fiddling with her phone, and they head for the stands. Alex times his appearances with the band’s music, which remains the same as when the last sanctioned Chiefs danced seven years ago.

Ivan points, Alex nods and they’re on their way. Fans in line for concessions pause and stare. One man reaches out for a handshake. Ivan interferes. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” the man says, almost apologetically. Alex’s eyes remain straight ahead. It is getting loud, now.

CHIIIIEEEEEFFFFFFFFFF

The crowd bellows in approval as Alex makes his entrance, clapping along with the band as he and his pseudo-security team make their lap along the lower bowl.

Welcome! Chief! Chief!

If there are naysayers, their voices are drowned out by what Alex estimates is a 16,000-to-1 differential in favor of supporters in the arena with a capacity of 16,628.  Yet while 78 percent of 9,003 students voted in favor of Chief Illiniwek in a 2013 university referendum, last year’s freshman class would have been in sixth grade during the Chief’s last official performance. Many students remain silent, while others clap to the music regardless of Alex’s presence.

The PA announcer makes an attempt at drawing the crowd’s attention to the court, where the women’s track and field team is being honored, but his efforts appear fruitless. Alex raises his arms above his head, and the crowd grows louder. His arms linger in the air, and with a defiant stomp of his right foot he lowers them and continues on his way, past more cheering fans and back toward base camp. The headdress comes off first, returning Alex’s ability to speak. “I think I saw a guy I went to high school with,” he says, removing the breastplate and stepping out of his moccasins.

Soon, he’s back in his original attire, and all that remains is the face paint, which Ivan smears to distinguish Alex from whom he’s portraying. “It’s not yours anymore,” he whispers, blurring the colors together.

Fans have gathered near the entrance by now, some upset they missed photo opportunities, others just looking to shake Alex’s hand. Sometimes there are autograph requests, which he obliges by affixing his signature with “Chief XXXVIII,” dragging behind to instill the idea that he is someone who portrays the Chief, not the man himself. “Thank you,” he says, passing the usher on the way out.

“Thank you!” the usher beams, turning to admire her photos.

***

Jamie Singson has agreed to this meeting, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to talk. Though the years have eroded local support for the symbol, as they have for American Indian images in sports as a whole, the outrage of those in favor of Chief Illiniwek makes the director of the university’s Native American House reluctant to discuss the matter.

Past directors have received death threats after declaring Chief Illiniwek culturally insensitive to American Indians, in addition to more tangible actions; Wanda Pillow, who held Singson’s seat when the Chief was retired in February 2007, once went for a drive, only to discover that the lug nuts had been removed from the wheels of her car.

“I’d rather not give my opinion on the mascot issue,” Singson says. He is a hefty, middle-aged man of Apache and Filipino descent, and right now he is unsure of how this conversation should proceed. “Historically,” he says, “sharing an opinion while in this position has resulted poorly. I’d feel much more comfortable if we stuck to facts.”

So, then. Let’s talk facts.

Of the 32,281 undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Illinois in 2013-14, 35 – about one-tenth of a percent – identified singularly as American Indian with ties to one of the 566 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States, while 330 identified as American Indian with another ethnicity. Alex, who became the 38th portrayer, albeit in an unofficial role, during the tail end of his freshman year, belongs to that second group.

Claiming membership in a tribal nation, which makes one eligible for extra federal services, requires official recognition that is based on a person’s degree of blood ties to members of tribal nations, which the Doziers lack. Some look to discredit Alex’s intentions here, rejecting his authenticity as an American Indian and thus his views regarding the issue as a whole.

“If someone represents himself as an American Indian, and he’s heard to be speaking for them or is heard to be legitimating practices that cause harm, then the claim is not trivial or unimportant,” says Dr. Richard King, an Illinois alumnus and the author of Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy. “In fact, people in Indian Country who are sensitive to this would say that any time someone passes themselves off as an Indian and in fact is not, they’re hurting Indian people.”

Alex believes his upbringing outweighs what some might perceive to be an insufficient amount of “Indianness.” “It’s kind of an irritating question to hear,” he says. “It’s not magic. You’re suddenly one race, and then you’re not.”

American Indian culture, as with European and Asian culture, is not homogeneous, but while Alex’s ethnicity cannot be questioned, he has nevertheless cultivated a reputation on Illinois’ campus as an anomaly among American Indians in his support for the Chief.

Alex carries Cherokee blood from two grandparents, who raised his father in a sparsely populated area of Southern Illinois. His mother, Michelle, conversely, “is about as white as can be,” Alex says, with Irish and English origins. He has a round face with long, thin lips that are rarely serious, and it is topped by a full head of brown hair that, before entering college, served as the base for a thinly braided tail down his back. The haircut stood out among the student body of Monticello High School, which resides in a small town a few miles west of Champaign that is 97 percent white and 0.1 percent American Indian, according to the most recently available Census data.

Alex aspired to join student council, or maybe even win election as homecoming king, but he was instead a member of a self-proclaimed “nerd crew,” with only a handful of friends. “No matter how qualified I was for something, I knew that they would never vote me in,” Alex says. “I needed to change the mindset in people that I’m not actually that different than you just because I might look it or I might act it – the fact that I’m still actually a person.”

But while Alex believes he was isolated specifically by his ethnicity, how much that actually weighed into his peers’ voting practices is difficult to measure. “He was just sort of an oddball,” Brandon, his roommate and childhood friend, recalls. “He didn’t really fit in with others. He was much more intelligently inclined.” The two met in middle school, though Brandon wasn’t aware of Alex’s background until he saw Ivan, whose complexion is much darker, years later. “He had blue eyes and pale skin,” Brandon says. “He didn’t look like an Indian. Just white.”

American Indian sightings are infrequent in Central Illinois. Accordingly, of the 566 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States, not one is headquartered in Illinois. A band of American Indian tribes that joined to form the Illini Confederation occupied much of the Midwest in the 17th century, but of those, only the Peoria remain. Today’s Peoria are based in Oklahoma after a history of tribal conflicts, disease and settler encroachment in the 1800s. The last structurally destabilized the tribal communities and fostered the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which helped legalize the removal of American Indians east of the Mississippi River and eventually paved the Trail of Tears.

This is problematic for Singson, whose job is to expand the American Indian demographic at the university. This, despite his best efforts, is not happening. Even with Chicago, home to one of the largest groups of American Indians of any American metropolis, less than three hours to the north by car, the university has seen a drop in American Indian students since recruitment began despite growth nearly everywhere else and opposite demographic curves for Chicago, Illinois and the United States.

Partly responsible for the trend, Singson says, are issues related to Chief Illiniwek.

American Indians who attend the university are often involuntarily thrust into a debate over an issue about which they might not even hold an opinion. The topic can consume them, Singson says, regularly forcing them down one of two diverging paths: numbness or activism.

“By the time these students become upperclassmen, they are either counting the days until graduation, when they will no longer have to deal with being a spokesperson for their race, or engrossed in an issue that may consume them for the rest of their lives. “We’ve seen both, and probably equally both,” Singson says. “In the galvanizing and the environment, they can come out stronger, or they can be a casualty.”

Twenty years before Alex entered Illinois as a student, a Spokane Indian artist from Washington essentially started the movement against Chief Illiniwek. Charlene Teters attended the university as a graduate student in 1988, wide-eyed and eager to continue her education to heights her family had never climbed. Her arrival on campus would completely alter the trajectory of her life.

Teters accepted admission without any prior knowledge of Chief Illiniwek after she was recruited from the Institute of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But she quickly noticed Chief paraphernalia everywhere – on posters, beer cans, business logos, even toilet paper. The use of unofficial American Indian images, most of them less flattering than the stoic symbol most associated with the Chief, was widespread. One campus bar featured a neon sign of an Indian stumbling in a loop, with an enlarged nose, a crooked feather affixed to his head, crosses in his eyes. Sororities held a Miss Illini Squaw Contest at the beginning of each semester.

Teters tolerated the Chief derivatives until her two children asked to attend a basketball game in 1989, to watch the Final Four-bound Flyin’ Illini. She anticipated fans wearing headdresses and war paint and crying out war whoops, but her children, a son in high school and a daughter in junior high, were not concerned. Then Chief Illiniwek snaked out of the tunnel, and Teters watched her children shrivel in despair.

The Chief’s dance, a powerful, or at least entertaining, experience for so many who grew up with it, amounted for Teters’ family to little more than spasms in a glorified gymnastics routine – “sort of M.C. Hammer meets Richard Simmons meets Biff the town idiot,” Jeff Pearlman once wrote in Sports Illustrated – done by a kid in a headdress then adorned with 90 real eagle feathers. Teters’ son attempted to laugh it off, but her daughter, unable to mask the embarrassment, sank in her chair.

“They just wanted to go to a basketball game because these guys were local heroes,” Teters, now a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, said recently by phone. “They weren’t concerned. Why should they be concerned? We’re going to a basketball game. What other group of people have to worry about taking their children to a game, anywhere in this country, where their identity, their culture, their spiritual way of life is being played with?”

Teters’ subsequent protests prompted backlash from the community and toward her children. The phone rang continuously with harassing messages, suggesting that she was ashamed of her culture and slinging epithets like “Prairie nigger.” Her daughter, who went on to earn her doctorate in epidemiology, contemplated suicide after a teacher heckled her in front of the class, pointing out “Charlene Teters’ kid.”

“I think a lot of times it gets painted by those who say, ‘Well, those dissenters, those who are against the mascot are really strong-willed,’” Singson says. “Well, many others just want to get through school. They appreciate their heritage, they want to celebrate their heritage, but they don’t want to be on parade, which is how Ivan sees it,” he added, referring to Alex, who shares his given name with his father.

“But it’s a delicate, delicate responsibility,” Singson continued. “Education is delicate. If it’s not done correctly, if it’s not done accurately, it can be complicated.”

Photo by Michael Bojda

***

Chief Illiniwek did have a way of uniting the masses. His performances, with their high-steps, leaps and twirls, would reach a crescendo as the collective arms of the crowd rose with his. Though his arms locked upward in place, as if signaling a field goal, theirs kept rotating until they were placed around their neighbors’ backs, swaying side to side as they sang the school’s Alma Mater while the Marching Illini played on.

Those linked arms offered the singers, many of them students away from family for the first time, a connection and shared experience through which bonds were formed – with one another, with the university and with the Chief. To trivialize such an experience is to declare one’s feelings as illegitimate, and an intricate issue turns polarizing.

Debate about a mascot transforms into a battle to protect an entrenched ritual of self-understanding, and what might be perceived as an issue of culture or race or history becomes something else entirely. As the late film critic Roger Ebert, an Urbana native who graduated from the university in 1964, wrote in 2010:

The Chief. *Sigh* I understand intellectually why Chief Illiniwek was retired. I agree with the decision ideologically. But my heart cries out, as in my memory he stands proudly on the 50 yard line and the Marching Illini conclude the school Song, Illinois! Illinois! Illinois! He was so much more dignified than a buckeye, a wolverine, a badger, a boilermaker, a Spartan. He was greatness. I’m glad I was there.

Singson attended a men’s basketball game two years before the Chief was retired so he could witness the exhibition for himself. From his seat in the upper deck he saw, one row above the concourse, a small child with dirty-blonde hair no older than five years old sitting beside her father. It was most likely her first Illinois basketball game, Singson deduced, watching her fidget throughout the first half.

Until, of course, Chief Illiniwek emerged from the tunnel and into the heart of the stadium. Fans stood up. Dad stood up. The girl’s eyes saucered amid the frenzy. Never, Singson assumes, had she seen a group of such magnitude act in such a collective manner. He watched in real time as the ritualizing became part of the fabric of who she was.

“He’s getting up, he knows the motions, he knows what to do, what to say,” Singson says. “And she was learning it for the first time. This little girl all of a sudden was having an experience that is going to be burned into her memory forever. So you can’t dismiss it as being racial. It becomes something that’s this misguided moment that forever is part of a person’s persona.

“You can’t marginalize that,” he added. “But it’s come out of a reality that isn’t accurate to the indigenous people that it causes confusion for.”

***

Four days after the basketball game, Alex spoke to the Champaign-Urbana chapter of the Kiwanis Club, a fraternal organization that counts nearly 600,000 members worldwide. Lunch was served to about 50 guests, most male, all white and all far removed from their days as college students. “It’s about time,” one man with tufts of white hair sprouting out of his ears groused after hearing the afternoon’s itinerary, “that these Indians gave it up with this Chief stuff already.”

Appearances like these are paramount in Alex’s attempts to use Chief Illiniwek as a means of teaching broader lessons about American Indian culture. Capacity crowds show up for sporting events, and the university’s former symbol still casts an energetic glow when mentioned. The Chief, Alex says, is merely the platform. The end goal is to educate those with a limited understanding of American Indian culture, from within the persona of an American Indian character they know, so that they will better respect its importance.

The Chief’s standing as a source of education is a relatively new phenomenon. The Native American cultural house and American Indian studies program on the Illinois campus, for example, were born following a dialogue between the university and anti-Chief proponents. Not to mention that every other aspect of American history is taught without the aid of sports mascots; imagine, Dr. Richard King posits, compensating for an abridged curriculum concerning the Constitution by appointing a James Madison mascot to communicate the values of American democracy.

“It’s kind of a dodge that misses the point,” King says. “Mascots are problematic because 1) they’re false; and 2) they’re kind of fictions created by outsiders. So what ends up getting presented is a false version of Indianness that’s written by the same people who tried to conquer them.”

Nevertheless, Alex calculates that it is worth placating the misinformed as long as it results in an accurate understanding down the line. “Sometimes, the hardest part about being the Chief is dealing with the people who support you, because a lot of them are really misguided,” Alex says. “They have really twisted reasons for that support. And in my opinion, these are the people you need to reach most.”

The first order of business at the meeting is the Pledge of Allegiance and a Kiwanis prayer, followed by general housekeeping. Sheets of paper are handed out to those wishing to partake in the Week 13 football picks, and donations are sought for the coming toy drive, which will be stationed at the former Wonder Bread outlet store. The room croons a rendition of “Home on the Range,” shortly after, and then the day’s main attraction is introduced.

“We need to be a society where majority rules,” says Lou Liay, the day’s emcee and a figurehead of the university’s Alumni Association. “We’ve gotten to the point where if one person objects to something, then we need to change it. It is my opinion that the Chief is one of the most beautiful, admired, respected and loved symbols in all of college sports. I don’t see it changing, but maybe Alex will give us some favorable reports that he knows about.”

Alex replaces Liay to welcoming applause, wearing an orange Illinois basketball t-shirt tucked into blue jeans. He has participated in presentations like these since he was in kindergarten, when Ivan would speak to classes at local schools. If it was Alex’s class, he would assist his father as an assistant by fetching items like a tomahawk or blowgun, hold them high for the entire class to see, and then send them around the room.

Standing next to dad helped legitimize Alex’s ethnicity in the eyes of his classmates. Especially, he said, “when you’re a kid in kindergarten and first grade and everyone’s saying, ‘Why do you have a ponytail? Why do you have a ponytail?’” Back then, Alex and his classmates stored their jackets and backpacks in black garbage bags that hung from a coat rack. Ivan came in one day with a blowgun fashioned out of prairie cane and called out Alex’s bag before sniping it from across the room. The children howled in approval. “You know how in kindergarten it’s, ‘My dad could beat up your dad?’ I had the coolest dad solidly for a month because he hit that coat bag.”

Alex’s eyes scan the Kiwanis as he breezes through historical background involving the Illini Confederation and Chief Illiniwek’s origins – how in 1926 the Chief first appeared as part of an idea by the assistant band director as a halftime stunt. “Is this what an Illini looks like?” headlines one of the slides, with photos showing what an Illini Indian might have looked like during different eras.

“So as you can see, the Chief regalia isn’t necessarily accurate to what you would have seen for an Illini people,” Alex says. “It’s more of a Sioux regalia. So a lot of confusion – that’s something someone always asks: ‘How authentic is the regalia?’ – and it’s a confusing question. But as far as traditional Illini regalia, it’s a little bit different.”

Some audience members sit upright while others lean forward, but nearly all listen attentively, muttering their approval when Alex notes how the 14th Chief portrayer, Ronald Kaiser, was asked to perform at the second inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. “If that doesn’t indicate to you that the Chief is being recognized on a national level,” Alex says, “I’m not sure what does.”

Alex continues his tour of the Chief’s evolution up to present day, speaking transparently on issues like the regalia but ignoring the less-flattering depictions of American Indians that dominated campus until the 1980s. In time, he turns his focus toward his opinion regarding the Chief’s current standing. He uses words like “unity,” “tradition,” “honor,” “respect” and “knowledge,” explaining the difference between a symbol and a mascot. Chief Illiniwek, Alex says, does not engage in hijinks like Brutus Buckeye, Ohio State’s mascot, or Puddles, Oregon’s anthropomorphic duck, who in 2007 was suspended for a game after an altercation with the Houston Cougar. “Those are all antics of mascots,” Alex says. “This is something you’ll never see the Chief do.”

One man in a checkered blue shirt with white pants and glasses asks how a pro-Chief lawsuit might fare, to which Alex replies that the NCAA has a stranglehold on the issue. (Prior to Illinois retiring the Chief, the NCAA enacted a rule barring any university from hosting postseason athletic events if it was deemed to promote “hostile and abusive” imagery.) Another man asks about the consensus of the other tribes, pointing to Florida State’s use of the Seminoles. Alex responds that a band of Seminoles has approved the use of the name – though other Seminoles tribes reside in Oklahoma and, as with the Peoria, do not approve.

One woman proposes that the Kiwanis sponsor an informational booth at local events like the Taste of Champaign or the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival so the public could receive similar information and rid themselves of misconceptions – but only those misconceptions championed by supporters of Chief Illiniwek.

***

Would doing so change the narrative, the perspective for the hundreds of thousands who engaged in the tradition for eight decades, reveled in its glory and then continued as they were, unaware even that their chief named Illiniwek was created in the image of a Sioux?

Jamie Singson would say no, though exactly how many American Indians would agree with him has been difficult to ascertain. People like Teters might never develop an opinion without being thrust into an environment with American Indian mascots; others like King, who is white, and Alex are heavily invested in the issue without having ties to one of the federally recognized tribes. Regardless of where exactly the battle lines stand, the tide is shifting against American Indian images in sport. While the Washington Redskins’ name carries much of today’s publicity, many of the media entities that publicize that team have chosen not to use its nickname. The Cleveland Indians have gradually distanced themselves from their Chief Wahoo logo.

And they aren’t the only ones. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization, released a report in October 2013 condemning racial images in sport. According to the report, the number of references to Indians in sports had fallen from 3,000 to 1,000 in the past 35 years. Regardless of what happens in Washington, new teams are not being named the “Redskins.”

Beyond the cornfields surrounding Champaign, mascots like Chief Illiniwek, who was actually one of the longest holdouts in college sports, continue to lose their influence. While Alex wasn’t a believer until that transformative day in the crowd at Memorial Stadium, Teters and many others have seized the momentum, and perhaps the majority. Alex’s efforts and intentions are on the losing end of a battle, facing a discrepancy in opinion that only appears to be widening.

Every day, it seems, with the ever-expanding outpouring of testimonials disparaging American Indian imagery in sports and a growing opposition to hold out by the likes of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, more and more people are positioning themselves against symbols like Chief Illiniwek.

Alex Dozier and those like-minded are not blind. They can see this, and see what it means for the Chief’s future.

Who are they to disagree?


Share |

Comments

No comments yet. Login to post comments.