History of the Chief

                Chief Illiniwek was introduced in an era long past when questions of race were still levied at powerful institutions and social norms such as Jim Crow.  The American Indian population plummeted during the years after the civil war as a result of disease, slavery, war, and forced removal and at the turn of the century stood on the brink of total extinction with only 237 thousand some people nation-wide (Nagel 1996).  The Chief came into existence just as the American Indian cultural renaissance and revival had begun in the 1920’s.  This effort of rejuvenation would reach a tipping point by the 1960’s but effectively when the Chief was spawned Native Americans represented only one quarter of a percent1 (0.0025) of the total American population, and held virtually no power whatsoever.  In short, the creators of the Chief could concoct the symbol without any regard to authenticity or involvement of native populations because they were so few and so insignificant (in the eyes of the majority) at the time.  Chief Illiniwek is not based on an actual American Indian Chief (the Illini are no longer with us) nor has a historical figure with that name ever existed.  Furthermore only white men (and one woman) have ever played the role of the Chief.
                For the sake of simplicity and a concise introduction this brief history is based primarily on the summaries found on the News-Gazette (Wurth and Heckel), a local UIUC newspaper, and the Chief Illiniwek Wikipedia (5 Nov 2007) entry.  Other more extensive sources on the topic are abundant but unnecessary for the scope of this paper.  The Chief figure was first established in 1926 and spent the first sixty some odd years of his existence without any considerable resistance or protest.  Starting in 1989 Charlene Teters roused the first bouts of awareness protesting that “Indians are Human Beings” after being shocked with her children at a sports game.  Thus the controversy was born, and student and alumni organizations started sprouting up for and against the Chief.  Numerous political and academic proceedings were to follow, with varied resolutions ranging from making the Chief the official symbol of U of I to multiple unsuccessful calls for a consensus decision on the issue to formal requests by Native American tribes to end the Chief.  Throughout it all the local and student community resolutely supported the use of the Chief, despite the many minority voices with feelings to the contrary.  The crippling blow came in the form of the NCAA decision to ban UIUC from hosting postseasons competitions because of their use of the American Indian imagery.  With such a staggering potential loss of funding (that might rival what money would be lost by protesting alumni if the Chief were retired) the Board’s decision is rumored to have been strongly economically motivated in nature.  This change came in stride with an accumulation of persistent protest from many groups both in and outside of the university and the STOP coalition2 meeting that filled Foellinger Hall and called in hundreds of watchers over the internet that issued an ultimatum to retire the Chief.
                Historically two main perspectives (Akitunde et. al 2004) have been presented by people on each side of the issue (pro and con, apathy and indecision suspended).  The Pro-Chief sentiment generally follows that the Chief is not a mascot but a symbol; a focal point, inspiration, and a tradition that draws faculty and students together in school spirit and unity.  Some individuals even contest that Native Americans who live outside of the state should have less of a voice in the issues of their imagery in Illinois than any given Illinois tax payer.  Others insist that the usage of the symbol is a compliment and raises awareness of Native American culture.  And still others voice that any given mascot or symbol doesn’t have to be a problematic representation, others such as the Fighting Irish or Florida Seminoles don’t inspire such levels of controversy.  The opposing view, though less widely held, is found among most reservation born American Indians, other racial minorities, and social science academics.  Most anti-Chief aligned individuals express that the Chief is demeaning, degrading, and belittling of Native Americans and serves to be more of a mockery and statement of dominance or ownership then honor or gratitude.  The dance was eventually proven to be unauthentic and many adversaries to the Chief contend that the whole entourage misappropriates Native American culture and perpetuates harmful or racial stereotypes.  The dance is also considered by some to be a religious ceremony and thus a highly offensive act comparable to a Christian Priest or minister dancing around on the field during football games.  And finally a substantially sized group levies the insinuation that letting a white majority member represent a minority figure is on par with blackface and other gross misrepresentations of the past.
                As so many curtly point out, mascot or symbol, the Chief fails in promoting unity and on the contrary has sparked some of the strongest negative feelings insurgent on campus.  Facebook has become witness to the passionate expressions regarding the Chief and has even served as a grounds for facilitating social capital among Pro-Chief groups.  If social change is to happen then the digital mediums of exchange must be addressed in kind with their reflections in the offline world.

Sociological importance

                The potential avenues for the influence of Facebook are numerous, especially among US college populations.  Education and research have a great deal to learn from the incarnations, uses, interpretations and social movements of new media.  As sociology concerns itself with informing people of the shifts of the future we ought to pay attention to the influences Facebook will have, especially as it becomes nominally interlaced into the work place and expands its influences across the globe.  Facebook extends the interactions of the face-to-face world and virtually everything it encapsulates, including the effects and impacts of the many social groups and analytic categories traditionally of concern to sociology: gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, ability and mental illness, class and geography, age and education, and countless others.  The ramifications of this claim insinuate that examination of Facebook ought to intersect with all subsets and variations of sociology be they areas like transnational studies and demographics or methodologies such as historical comparatives, content analysis, quantitative data collection, or ethnographies.  Social networking services and Facebook are imperative to modern Sociological study.
                The issue of Chief Illiniwek quintessentially raises the question of racial campus climate at UIUC and elates discussion over the impact of imagery and ownership of symbols as they relate to cultural identity.  The Chief is a complicated racialized dispute and reveals institutionalized racism, internalized covert (and occasionally overt) racist tendencies in individuals, and implies disconcerting social norms in operation among University students.  The escapade is adamantly social in nature and thus ought to be matched with the capable lens of sociology.
                Key to this statement of relevance is Facebook’s relationship to the formulation of policy.  The purpose of this paper is to identify and explain Facebook as a tool of social capital and social change as well as a distinguished reflection of student perspectives at the University of Illinois.  This study demonstrates that by employing survey research and content analysis policy makers can better understand student perceptions surrounding the racialized issue of the Chief and thus learn to more adequately address and counteract issues of ignorance, racism, and inappropriate behavior.  Further, the findings here exemplify the potential dangerous role Facebook could play in perpetuating harmful or hateful social mass-movements among uneducated or ignorant students.  Policy makers need not only watch and observe on Facebook but also advocate appropriately and effectively there too.

back to introduction | forward to theory and literature review

[1] Derived from census data (http://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/urpop0090.txt) and cross referenced with Nagel – this number was estimated to be about half way between the 1920 and 1930’s data.

[2] Check http://www.iresist.org/ for more information and footage.