My first memories of the Chief are from the 3-in-1 performances at football games in the 1970’s. I particularly anticipated, the high-knee stepping portion of his dance, which culminated with the incredible toe-touching split jump. I got goosebumps every time. Yet forty years later, as the Chief continues prohibited performances at games, instead of goose bumps, I only feel boiling blood.
I was never aware of any controversy surrounding the Chief — and certainly thought that my worship and idolizing fit with the notion of “honor” and “respect”. In 4th grade, dressing up as an “Indian” for Halloween was an obvious thing for me, even as Native Americans from many different tribes came into my family.
Then, twenty years ago, I saw In Whose Honor?, a documentary by Jay Rosenstein showing the impact of the Chief upon a Native American person, Charlene Teters. As the closing credits rolled, I realized that the instrument of my joy was the instrument of others’ pain. And compounding this pain was the fact that it was being inflicted by the very white people who had been doing so in unimaginable ways for hundreds of years. I knew then that the Chief is racist and wrong.
Finally, ten years later the NCAA forced the issue, but the University fought it to the end. And yet in the years since the Chief was banned for being “hostile and abusive” to minorities, the University has done little to make the ban real. The Chief still dances at weddings at U of I facilities. Trademark rights are not enforced allowing new chief gear to be readily available. No replacement mascot has been offered. The 3-in-1 music still plays while choruses of “Chief” ring out at games. The American Indian studies program has gone from seven core faculty members to zero.
And somehow, the Chief keeps appearing at games.
He doesn’t come to every game, only select games that are not too hard to predict. He dramatically poses for pictures in the hallway before and after performing the 3-in-1 from the lower level aisles (it’s interesting that anyone else who tries standing there is quickly told by an usher that they are violating fire code).
It was pretty obvious that the Chief would be at the Michigan State game. In addition to the fact that it was Senior Night, Facebook pictures revealed a former Chief and his father (two of the primary “bodyguards” for current Chief appearances) were guests at the Illini Rebounders Club the previous night. So just before halftime, I circled the lower hallways hoping I was wrong, but there he was. The Chief stood in full “regalia” with his arms folded as crowds gathered and preened for pictures. Despite never having used Facebook Live, I spontaneously launched the Live Facebook function. I approached the Chief, and while being pushed around a bit and told to “fuck off”, the only real defense offered by his team to my statement that people are hurt by this was that “people are hurt by a lot of things.”
However, the worst and most frightening component of the whole 10 minute filming, was the fact that State Farm Center Security and Security Supervisors, State Farm Center Ushers and Usher Supervisors, and Champaign Police and Champaign Count Sheriff personnel were all called in to make sure that I didn’t get in the way of this appearance and performance.
Signals were given to the Chief’s handlers from State Farm Center personnel about the timing of the halftime show, so that he would be ready at precisely the right moment as the band struck their notes. My complaints about the presence of the Chief and his intended emergence into the walkways of the arena were met with some of the worst Paul Blart: Mall Cop moments as security ignored my objections, and searched for a rationale to allow the performance. The widely viewed video captures the shocking degree to which the Chief is protected by security and law enforcement personnel. I felt powerless and ineffective. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a minority in an environment like this where the privileged and the majority make, interpret, and enforce the rules.
I subsequently wrote various high level U of I administration members requesting explanation and action. I have received only bland statements of turning this over to “university police” with no other follow-up or action. In this time where racial, ethnic and religious minorities are already so scared, can’t the University of Illinois step up and protect its own students from exposure to this sort of endorsed hostility that it has already told the NCAA it will prevent?
I will continue to make my voice heard alongside those who are the real victims here. All minorities suffer when one is ignored, disregarded, and hurt. The Native American & Indigenous Student Organization has openly pleaded with the University to “Help End Cultural Appropriation” on posters across campus the past two weeks because of the continued damage that this racist symbol perpetuates. I encourage everyone who hasn’t seen In Whose Honor? to open their hearts and minds and then watch the film, and then to watch this video to see how little things have really changed.