By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) In life, there are precious few win-wins.
But when one does actually come along? Well, it’s a shame to not take advantage of it.
Nevertheless, that appears to be the path that the University of Illinois is choosing to take when it comes to the issue of Chief Illiniwek, who could return as a reinvented tradition that would be a win-win for all stakeholders – alumni, students, fans, the university and, most significantly, the members of the Peoria Tribe.
But instead, based on comments made this week by university leaders following a meeting in Chicago, they seem to be lost on that point.
And, sadly, their mindsets seem to be stuck in neutral.
Early last month, news broke that the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed the university’s banished symbol – had submitted a plan to the U. of I. administration that would bring back an adapted version of Chief Illiniwek for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis.
The twist to this new proposal was that the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma – one of the original Native American tribes of Illini Confederation – had expressed willingness to be involved with adapting the Chief tradition, if the university was on board the idea.
Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, however, wasn’t willing to be on board with anything and shot down the Council’s proposal, saying she wouldn’t support the return of the Chief to any university-sponsored event.
Wise’s rejection led to this past Wednesday, when the Council of Chiefs took their case to the U. of I. Board of Trustees. During the public comment session of the board meeting held on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, Rick Legue, an Illinois grad who portrayed Chief Illiniwek in 1966 and 1967, summarized the Council’s proposal.
“Picture a Native American, a Peoria (Tribe of Oklahoma) student, in Peoria regalia, making a walk-on appearance during the Three-in-One, all by the design of and in collaboration with the Peoria Tribe,” he said.
According to the Champaign News-Gazette, Legue stressed that the proposal was not to return Illiniwek to the status of official school symbol and that the “reinvented” Chief tradition would include no dancing. He would instead be a “stationary presence” during the “Hail to the Orange song” with the Marching Illini. The Chief’s appearances would also be tied to fundraising activity for the Peoria Tribe, the U. of I. and Native American organizations.
To me, that sounds like a win-win. Illinois alumni, students and fans would be thrilled to see the Chief back on the field. The Peoria Tribe would be 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 benefit financially from monies raised through apparel sales or other revenue streams.
And that’s to say nothing of the bump in goodwill and fundraising that the university would surely enjoy from those alumni who have stopped giving to the school because of their ire over its handling of the Chief saga.
To that end, Legue told the Board of Trustees, “Our intent is to restore the good will at the university and reunite the Illini family.” Unfortunately, however, others would rather find reasons to divide and continue to see the Chief for what he was, rather than what he could be.
At the BOT meeting, U. of I. professor Joyce Tolliver spoke out against bringing back any form of the Chief, saying: “A university symbol should be a unifying thing. There’s no way the Chief can ever be anything but divisive.”
Following the meeting, Trustee James Montgomery added, “The bottom line is that the board made, in my judgment, a good judgment in making the decision to eliminate the Chief for a number of reasons. One, to the extent that it might be viewed as insulting to folks of Indian descent and because it impairs our relationship with the NCAA.”
And, finally, U. of I. president Robert Easter sidestepped the issue by saying, “We’re in an era of our university where we really need to pull together to create our future as an institution of higher education. That’s my focus.”
That’s all well and good. But to pretend that athletic-related issues don’t matter – financially and otherwise – to universities simply isn’t true, especially for a school that’s about to pour millions into renovating its basketball arena.
The sad and frustrating thing in all of this is that Chief Illiniwek doesn’t at all have to be “divisive” or “viewed as insulting” – not if he’s portrayed by a student from the Peoria Tribe with the tribe’s backing, which is exactly what’s being proposed. And the Chief also absolutely can be significant part of Illinois’ “future as an institution of higher education” – if the university would actually use Illiniwek as a tool to help teach the public about this state’s wonderful heritage and the proud people who lived in this land first.
The Illinois administration long ago should have worked to turn the Chief into something better, broader and more beneficial. It didn’t. But now that such a thing has actually been proposed, the university is turning its back on that, as well.
And that indeed is a shame.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.