I will never forget my first football game at the University of Illinois. I couldn't tell you whom they played or what the final score was but I can tell you that the most beautiful part of that day occurred when not one player was on the field. Even after growing up in a part of Upstate NY that was rich in Native American history and home to a handful of nations still today, I was not at all prepared for what I was about to become a part of.
I can remember the cheers of "Chief!" as the University of Illinois Marching Band performed their famed 3-in-1 maneuver and then suddenly Chief Illiniwek came bursting out from among the lines of band members. His arms opened up to the sky, his head held high as he performed a celebration that originated with the original Chief Illiniwek back in 1926. The dance as well as the authentic dress had been painstakingly passed on to each new Chief, a total of 36, until the NCAA banned the use of Chief Illiniwek by the University in 2007.
While those against the University's use of the Chief as a symbol claimed that it somehow harmed Native Americans, those who have ever witnessed this halftime event at a U of I football, basketball or volleyball game will tell you that it is the most revered and solemn tradition in sports. Chief Illiniwek existed long before college and universities made mascots commonplace so to call him one is simply ignorant.
Yet, ask any U of I graduate if the Chief was a mascot and they will look at you with daggers for even using the word. With pain in their eyes they will tell you that the Chief was much more than a symbol or a dance or a student in Illini dress. The meaning of Chief Illiniwek goes much deeper than that. He was a tradition. He was respected, honored and held a place deep in the hearts of those who felt the spirits reign down on the stadium the moment Chief Illiniwek exploded out from the band, the truest form of euphoria.
Each Illini fan would stand quietly with their arms folded in front of them until the Chief finished his dance and then, in unison with him, they all opened up their arms to the Heavens in a sense of unity that no other university or professional team could or will ever touch. In the spirit of Lakota Chief Frank Fool Crow who gave the very first Chief Illiniwek costume to the University, we all became one. Then, arm in arm we all sang the Alma Mater together before the Chief would complete his dance and leave the field.
Out of reverence, Chief Illiniwek only performed at halftime and never rallied the crowds along the sidelines or mingled with the cheerleaders during games. Plainly put, he neither was nor will he ever be a mascot.
In 2005, when the NCAA clumped Chief Illiniwek with mere mascots who ran around on the sidelines on horseback, shaking spears and chanting war cries, they cheapened what Chief Illiniwek represented to those who felt his spirit and certainly proved that they knew nothing about the Chief, his tradition and his significant role at the University of Illinois.
Surely they couldn't exclude Illinois from the sweeping ban that would have kept Illinois and the 17 other schools out of postseason play for non-compliance of their ban on "hostile and abusive American Indian Nicknames." How was Chief hostile? He never carried a weapon. How was the name Illiniwek abused by the students or the University? The original costume was on display in a glass case at the Student Center the entire time I was there complete with a history of the tradition and photographs dating back some 60 years. I can still remember the chills I felt the first time I stood in front of that display - The definition of Illini Pride.
Chief Illiniwek was anything but hostile and abusive and the spineless University Trustees barely put up a fight. The tears that flowed down the faces of those in attendance at the Chief's final dance on February 21, 2007 at the Illinois vs. Michigan basketball game told the NCAA and the Trustees a very different story. Many Alumni today refuse to donate to the University because of their lack of fighting spirit in the name of Chief Illiniwek. This may well be one of the few ways that the University can be influenced to understand the sentiments of past Illini.
The final Chief, Dan Maloney of Galesburg, Illinois, showed the only act of defiance that Chief Illiniwek ever expressed in his 80+ year tradition. After finishing his dance and opening his arms for the last time with his beloved fellow Illini, as he turned to exit through the tunnel he pounded his foot on the hardwoods of Assembly Hall one final time. Yet, it appears that the Chief could dance again if a U of I student group, Students For Chief Illliniwek, have anything to say about it.
Those who forced the University and the NCAA's hands in this controversy may well feel a sense of vindication for having "won" their war against the Chief. Yet, what they have really done is cheated themselves. By not allowing future Illini to feel the presence of Chief Illiniwek as part of their University experience, these protesters have stripped away the one representation of Native Americans that was positive and dignified, gave us a direct connection to the deep traditions of the Native American culture and ultimately would have given them what they have been fight for for over a century...our respect.