University of Illinois prepares to retire Chief Illiniwek

CHICAGO (MCT) – Unless a judge stops them, University of Illinois officials will announce Friday that Chief Illiniwek, the controversial and storied mascot who has performed for 81 years, is to dance for the last time next week.

University officials had made extensive preparations for Friday’s announcement. But according to a source familiar with the university’s plan, the process took a turn Thursday when the two students who portray the chief filed a lawsuit against the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The students are seeking a restraining order that would prevent the university from dumping the chief and would lift the NCAA’s sanctions against the university’s sports teams. A Champaign County judge will hear their application Friday morning in Urbana.

The university will decide how to proceed after that hearing, the source said.

The chief, a barefoot student who performs at athletic events in a buckskin costume and feather headdress, made his first appearance on Oct. 30, 1926, during halftime of the Illinois-Pennsylvania football game. The tradition would end Wednesday at Assembly Hall, during halftime of the varsity men’s basketball game against Michigan, the final home game this season for the Illini.

Retiring the chief would be a victory for those who have pressured the university for years to dump the mascot, which they say is humiliating and creates a hostile environment on campus.

It also would open the way for the university to host postseason games, currently prohibited by the NCAA because Chief Illiniwek violates the organization’s rules, including next month’s National Invitation Tournament in basketball.

But the university’s decision would be a bitter defeat for those who have lobbied hard to keep Chief Illiniwek, saying it is a revered tradition that honors Native American culture. It also could mean a hit in alumni donations as the university embarks on a multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign.

Steven Raquel, who portrayed the chief in 1992 and ’93, said he would be disappointed if the tradition ended with only a few days’ notice.

“It is a dishonorable ending to 80 years of an honorable tradition,” Raquel said. “The tradition and the origins and the efforts that we have made over the years have only been done in respect of the history of Illinois and the history of the Illinois tribe. To see that linkage and that appreciation go by the wayside . . . without an opportunity to find common ground is disappointing.”

Raquel said university officials did not tell the Council of Chiefs, the group of 27 living alumni who portrayed Illiniwek, about their decision.

Others, however, applauded the plan.

“It would be the end of the chief, but the beginning of finally having our voices heard,” said Charlotte Wilkenson, 32, a Native American graduate student. “This will be a time when we finally honor the people who have been fighting the issue, who have been saying all along to retire the chief in name, in symbol, in performance.”

In 2005 the NCAA ruled that Chief Illiniwek and some mascots at other universities were “hostile and abusive.” The resulting sanctions have prevented the university from hosting men’s tennis and women’s soccer championship games.

Last month, university board of trustees Chairman Lawrence Eppley said a decision about the chief’s future would be made this year in response to the NCAA ruling. Eppley did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The students’ lawsuit against the university and the NCAA alleges that being forced to abandon their positions as chief would violate, among other things, their freedom of speech, academic freedom and future economic earnings.

The students are Dan Maloney, who performs at men’s football and basketball games, and assistant chief Logan Ponce, who performs at women’s basketball and volleyball games.

According to their complaint, retiring the chief would damage their reputations and jeopardize their ability to receive academic credit. The students receive credit from the School of Music for portraying Chief Illiniwek, according to the complaint.

“As has been the case for many former students who have portrayed Chief Illiniwek, many valuable employment and career opportunities and professional associations have been opened to those who have had the privilege and honor of portraying Chief Illiniwek,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that the NCAA failed to provide due process to the students and the university when it issued the sanctions, citing a 1991 state law that requires certain procedures, such as hearings, before penalties can be imposed.

In a similar lawsuit in North Dakota, a state district judge granted a preliminary injunction in November that allowed the University of North Dakota to keep its “Fighting Sioux” name and use of Native American imagery without NCAA penalties pending a trial.

The University of Illinois students’ attorney, Brent Holmes, did not return calls for comment. Maloney said he couldn’t comment until after Friday’s hearing.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Thursday that the NCAA believes its sanctions are legal.

“We intend to aggressively defend our position if it comes to a court hearing,” Williams said. “We not only have the right but also the obligation to ensure our NCAA championships are conducted in an atmosphere free of racial stereotyping and one in which all of our student athletes, athletic staff and fans feel comfortable.”

Maneuvering over the chief has accelerated in recent weeks.

Last month the Oglala Sioux tribe that sold the university some of the chief’s regalia, including moccasins, peace pipe pouch, breastplate and war bonnet with eagle feathers, demanded them back. The university later found documentation that it already had returned the eagle-feathered headdress to the tribe at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

On Feb. 1, university officials held a campuswide forum to address racism on campus after a student who opposed the chief was threatened on an Internet site.

Last week, the Council of Chiefs sent a letter to university President B. Joseph White asking for ownership of the chief trademark.

Roger Huddleston, co-founder of the Honor the Chief Society, a pro-chief group, said he would be interested in how things sort out after the court hearing. But after years of debates about the chief, this one may not end after all Friday, he said.

“It is never over until it’s over,” he said.