Frustrated Illini: U. of I. fails to lead on Native American issues

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 11.09.23 PMFrom the Saturday, Sept. 2, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


I used to be a Fighting Illini.

Now I’m just a frustrated one.

And it’s not nearly so much because of the University of Illinois’ many losses on the football field and basketball court in recent years as it is from all the ways my alma mater continues to fail the vast majority of its alumni and fans.

As well as Native Americans – but not in the way most think.

Last week, news broke that U. of I. had abruptly banned the “War Chant” music – a rhythmic drum beat and hand clapping – from all Illini sporting events, including football games where it’s been a defensive third-down fixture for decades, but won’t be for today’s season opener.

Critics argue that War Chant is offensive to Native Americans and that supporters should get over it because it’s “just a song.” Supporters of War Chant, meanwhile, argue that it indeed is “just a song” and critics should get over taking offense to everything. Personally, news of the ban left me with a mix of emotions ranging from sadness to frustration to exhaustion. But mostly I was disappointed.


Because with this deeply complex issue, the truth is that U. of I. banning War Chant isn’t really just about a song. Rather, big picture-wise, it’s yet another step in the university’s maddening campaign to eradicate all things related to this state’s Native American heritage rather than find ways to better embrace it.

As readers of this column know, I’ve long been a defender of the Chief Illiniwek tradition, but I’ve also always acknowledged how the Chief was never perfect. And for decades it was the enormous failure of the university’s administration to not work toward developing the beloved symbol into a true educational tool that could raise awareness about Native American heritage and tangibly benefit their communities.

In May 2013, the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed Illiniwek – did that work independently by submitting a plan to the U. of I. administration that would have brought back an adapted version of the Chief for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis. The Peoria of Oklahoma, one of the original tribes of long-vanished Illini Confederation, expressed a willingness to be involved with adapting the Chief tradition, but only if the university itself was on board with the idea.

Inexplicably, it wasn’t. Former Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise refused to consider the benefits of what was described as a non-dancing Chief whose appearances would be tied to fundraising activity for the Peoria Tribe, the U. of I. and Native American organizations.

By forsaking that opportunity, Illinois abandoned a true win-win. Alumni and fans would have been thrilled to see the Chief back on the field. The Peoria Tribe would have been honored – along with this state’s heritage – with a Native American student wearing regalia approved by the tribe. And the university, the Peoria and other Native American groups would have benefited financially from monies raised through apparel sales or other revenue streams.

Four years later, U. of I. has still done nothing to embrace the Peoria Tribe or better educate Illinoisans about our state’s forebears. It’s done nothing to support the Nike N7 Fund that benefits Native American communities, despite being a Nike apparel school. It’s done nothing to evolve its game day experience for fans who adored honoring the proud people who lived here before us.

But it has banned a drum beat.

This week, U. of I. Chancellor Robert Jones and athletic director Josh Whitman said that the War Chant decision was made in the name of “education” and “leadership.” But from the university on this issue, I’ve only ever seen the opposite of that.

Frustrated Illini, indeed.

Join the Conversation


  1. This is an awesome article. I recently submitted to the board of trustees a letter suggesting we get you all involved. We keep bantering back and forth on the Chief issue and the music instead of asking for help to arrive at the right way to do this to honor our Native Americans that lived here and should still be living here, the Illini and Peoria tribes. Please help spread this message.

    1. Exactly!!!! This has frustrated me for years. I have always wondered why the U of I did not align themselves with the Peoria tribe and have the tribal leaders be the developers of what would be an appropriate way to honor the Native people of this state. They have wasted great opportunities to be honorable and respectful, but instead, chose to sit on their hands until enough people protested the use of Chief Illiniwek to end the affiliation with the school. And, you watch, those same protesters will not stop until the team name is changed from “Fighting Illini” to something else. So sad that a bunch of “leaders of higher learning” couldn’t muster the brainpower to figure this problem out in a dignified manner. Shame on the U of I.

  2. Thank you for that history lesson. I might add that controversy was really hyped-up when a particular Native American from New Mexico (my birth state) came to U of I (my 3 degrees) was a graduate student and claimed she spoke for a majority of Native Americans on the Chief controversy. I was working as a law clerk for the Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court at the time. I knew she did not speak for any Navajo I knew and teams associated with Native American names were dearly loved by all the tribes I came into contact with in the southwest. Now I see that some real constructive work was put into making a compromise which on its face seems quite reasonable. But what do we get, short-sighted thinking, totally void of creativity and nothing more than regurgitation of pc mantra. Sure makes my two graduate degrees from Illinois seem less than I used to think they were.

  3. The U of I sits on land cultivated by American Indians. I feel like we have forgotten them completely. I judge it as a racist decision to ignore the Chief, his native costume. his native dance and now the war chant.

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