URBANA – Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert remembers watching a man dressed up in Native American regalia dance across a football field as “surreal” and “in many ways silly.” It was the fall of 2006, and the University of Illinois’ former mascot, Chief Illiniwek, sported a feather headdress and face paint, as he wove in and out of the school’s marching band during halftime.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests and calls for racial justice, businesses and schools are reckoning with racist and offensive branding. One example: the NFL team in Washington, D.C., just recently retired its name — widely considered a slur against Native Americans — and will now go by the “Washington Football Team” as it searches for a new moniker.
The chief mascot was officially retired by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in February 2007. Today, the race-based mascot is still a divisive issue on the U of I campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community. People dressed like the chief still pop up at sporting events, merchandise with the image is still sold — the U of I holds the rights — and there are Facebook groups with thousands of members calling for the mascot to be reinstated.
“I’m not certain that the university can move beyond Chief Illiniwek anytime soon,” says Sakiestewa Gilbert, a former U of I professor who served as director of the university’s American Indian Studies Program until last year. Sakiestewa Gilbert now heads the University of Arizona’s Department of American Indian Studies.
Back at that football game in 2006, Sakiestewa Gilbert says “it really felt like these thousands of people in the stadium were having a religious moment,” when the mascot appeared.
During the performance, Sakiestewa Gilbert says a woman seated next to him asked what he did for a living. And then she asked if he was an Indian. Sakiestewa Gilbert says he was asked that question a lot during the 13 years he lived in Champaign-Urbana.
“And I said ‘I’m Hopi Indian from northeastern Arizona.’ And I’ll always remember what she told me. She says, ‘well, why don’t you go down there and be the chief? And then, you know, everything will be okay,’” he says.
“Her comments, I think, were really telling about how people thought of Native American representation, and their own entitlement.”
By the early 2000s, the mascot had become an extremely divisive issue. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced that schools with offensive Native American mascots, including the U of I symbol, would be barred from hosting postseason games. The U of I appealed that decision, but ultimately lost.
Debbie Reese completed her PhD at the U of I and taught at the university around the time that it was fighting to retain the chief. Reese is tribally enrolled in the Nambé Owingeh Pueblo, and is also an expert on native imagery in children’s literature. She remembers protesting the mascot outside football and basketball games.
“We would go to silent protests at the games, where you do put yourself at risk of being spat upon, of being yelled at or being cursed at. Those were always very uncomfortable things, but we felt important so we did them,” Reese says.
She says the mascot is a misrepresentation of native people, and one which has been reinforced by depictions of Native Americans in popular culture, including children’s books.
“The honoring that people say they do with mascots like this is not honoring. It’s denigrating It’s demeaning. And it’s an insult,” Reese says.
Many opponents of the chief compare the mascot to a minstrel show. Carol Spindel, a retired U of I professor and author of “Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots,” says that’s a fair comparison.
Spindel says she was inspired to research the origins of the chief after her students began submitting essays in opposition and support of the mascot. She discovered that mascot is based on a character in a Wild West show, which were performances that traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Spindel says Native Americans were cast in these shows and instructed to act out racialized stereotypes and false histories.
The first performance occurred in 1926 during the halftime of a game between the U of I and the University of Pennsylvania. Lester Leutwiler, a U of I student at that time, was the first person to portray the mascot, in a costume he made himself. On the field, he met with a student from the opposing team’s marching band, who was dressed as William Penn, and offered him a peace pipe. Spindel says the performance was a hit.
“Once (the chief) was established, the deans and the coaches imbued that fictional character with all the qualities that they wanted the young men in their charge to have. They wanted them to have integrity, to be courageous, but also to think of other people, to be generous and caring for their community,” Spindel says. “So they said that this Indian chief had all these qualities and that they should emulate him.”
But in interviews with native people, Spindel says she realized that the character served as a harmful stereotype, and she became immersed in protests and actions to remove it from campus.
“When Native students came here to Illinois, they saw clearly that no other group was treated in this way. No other group was sports entertainment. No other group’s image was being sold on T-shirts. So I think they felt that their culture was being trivialized. They felt sometimes in danger here. They did not feel welcome,” Spindel says.
Dan Maloney disagrees. Maloney was the last person to officially portray the chief during the mascot’s final performance at a basketball game in February 2007.
“The intent of Chief Illiniwek was always to hold a culture in reverence and encouraging people to learn about it,” Maloney says.
Maloney says the reverence chief fans have for the character is one of the reasons it has endured long past its official retirement.
“When that’s removed, especially when it’s such a strong source of inspiration to many, many people over many, many years, it can be tough to move forward.”
And many who oppose the chief say the university is to blame for its continued presence because nothing ever replaced it.
“For a lot of people, it’s still the mascot of the University of Illinois,” says Vikram Sardana, who graduated from the U of I last year. Sardana, Maloney and Sakiestewa Gilbert all served on a commission intended to heal the mascot divide on campus. Maloney, and Sardana, who believes the chief is an offensive and racist mascot, were unsatisfied with the report that resulted.
Sardana says the university should have created a new mascot years ago. U of I students voted earlier this year in favor of a new symbol for the institution: a Belted Kingfisher, which is a blue and orange bird native to Illinois.
Sardana says he’s hopeful a new symbol will move the university past the debate over its retired mascot.
“And I think that the lesson people should take from this is that not acting can make a problem worse than it needs to be. That, at some point, you have to rip the band aid off,” he says.
A spokesperson for the University of Illinois says that administrators are working on a plan to move the campus forward, which will include a process to establish new traditions.
But Sakiestewa Gilbert is skeptical that a new mascot — even one supported by a majority of the university’s students — can end the years-long controversy. He says that’s because of all the alumni and fans who still cling to the chief.
“I think this will continue to be a controversy, this will continue to be a burden on the university, especially the Native students who have to deal with this on a daily basis,” Sakiestewa Gilbert says.
He added that perhaps time will prove the ultimate solution to the U of I’s mascot problem.
“But we’re talking 50, 60, 70 years down the road, because there’s this community, in Champaign-Urbana, Central Illinois, and the state of Illinois, that will not let this go.”
Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines
This story originally aired on the NPR midday news magazine program, Here & Now, on July 29. 2020.