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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Illiniwek's Exit: Some Say Abrupt, Some Say It's About Time by Tara Malone


Doug Lattner hoped the day would never arrive.

But come Wednesday, the Mount Prospect man will watch his grandson take center court for the final time to perform Chief Illiniwek's last dance at Lattner's alma matter, the University of Illinois.

The storied mascot that for 81 years roused fans, stoked school spirit and stirred controversy will be benched, school officials said Friday. His retirement will kick into effect after the last home game for the men's basketball team.

"It is hard for me to believe it could be the end," said Lattner, a 1955 graduate. "Chief Illiniwek is a tradition in and of itself. It shouldn't just quietly fade away."

Illiniwek's retirement paves the way for Illinois' flagship campus to host post-season games. The buckskin-clad student performances at sporting events - a hallmark of Fighting Illini games - violated rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which, in turn, barred the school from staging playoff competitions.

In 2005, echoing the view of many Native American advocates on campus and beyond, the NCAA blasted Illiniwek as "hostile or abusive."

Many American Indians, professors and other minority students Friday lauded the sidelining of a mascot they say had become a touchstone of racial discord on campus.

"If you can go around playing Indian, you can certainly go around playing other minorities in very degrading and harmful ways," said John McKinn, assistant director of the university's Native American House and a member of the Maricopa tribe.

The Urbana-Champaign campus is home to some 100 American Indian students, McKinn said. They represent 0.2 percent of the university's nearly 42,000 students.

Sensitivity to American Indian students and athletes gunning for post-season competition influenced the board's decision, officials said.

"It's been a great tradition for a lot of people. We're not denying that," said Lawrence Eppley, chairman of the university's trustee board and a Palatine resident. "Under the circumstances, we need to move on."

Still, Chief Illiniwek's retirement further divides a U of I community fractured in its views of the mascot minted in 1926.

"It's definitely still a heated issue," said Daily Illini campus editor Matt Spartz, a junior from Lombard. "There's pretty much a daily dialogue between the different camps."

On Thursday, two students - Lattner's grandson Dan Maloney of Galesburg and Logan Ponce of St. Charles - who portray the chief filed a lawsuit to block trustees from sidelining Illiniwek. A downstate judge denied their injunction request Friday.

Many students and alumnae lamented the abrupt end of a tradition they felt honored American Indians and stoked school spirit. Portraying Illiniwek demands up to six months of training, including a week spent on an Indian reservation.

"To give it five days for closure seems very, very demeaning to 80 years of service," said Naperville resident Steve Raquel, who portrayed Chief Illiniwek in 1992 and 1993.

Some donors who support the chief said they may rethink their support now.

"The only thing I can do is withhold my funding and try to convince other people to do likewise. Will I actually do it? I don't know," said Palatine resident Michael Lenihan, who graduated from U of I in 1982. "For whatever reason, people at Illinois, we all seem to be passionate about stuff."

Eppley said university officials are aware there may be a dip in alumni contributions.

For their part, many American Indians, professors and other minority students called the mascot's retirement an "overdue step in the right direction."

Contention surrounding Chief Illiniwek complicated recruiting more American Indian students and faculty, said Native American history professor Frederick Hoxie.

"My career is dedicated to trying to establish and create a more accurate view of Indian people and the role of Indian people in American history. The existence of this mascot has been a barrier for that," Hoxie said.

First conceived by assistant band director and Algonquin native Ray Dvorak, Chief Illiniwek debuted during an Illinois vs. Pennsylvania football game in 1926.

Yet it wasn't until 1990 that university leaders adopted Chief Illiniwek as the school's official symbol. A year later, the student government group lodged the first complaint, calling the mascot discriminatory and requesting an apology to American Indians.

A tug of war ensued during the next 17 years.

News of Chief Illiniwek's retirement Wednesday comes as the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle. Yet whether it will be the final one remains unclear, said supporters and critics alike.

The university still may use the Illini name as it is short for Illinois, a concession wrangled from the NCAA during two rounds of appeals in 2005 and 2006. Fighting Illini also passes muster as it's viewed as a reference to the team's competitive spirit.

In that context, Eppley said university officials hope to preserve the Chief Illiniwek spirit, if not Chief Illiniwek himself.

The Council of Chiefs - a group of all living Illiniweks - echoed the sentiment.

"It's something that has been as revered as any other tradition out there in the collegiate environment," Raquel said. "Our hope is that we can take elements of the tradition and develop something that can live on."

Whether a new mascot for the orange and blue awaits remained uncertain Friday.

"What are you going to call them now?" asked Lee Turek of Elgin, a 1973 graduate.

"Look, it's all part of the fun that makes college sports what it is - the mascots, the nicknames, that kind of thing," Turek said. "Let's see who's next."

This article appears in The Daily Herald. The author can be reached at tmalone@dailyherald.com


Tara Malone

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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