Chief Illiniwek has long been considered the unofficial symbol of the University of Illinois, but one student organization is hoping to change that.
On March 2, while many University of Illinois students prepared to celebrate Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, members of the Native American and Indigenous Students Organization, or NAISO, were working on a Chief apparel collection campaign.
“It was super cool, because there’s never really been anything on campus before that’s talking about the chief while still being very informative, and being like, let’s talk about this issue, one on one,” said NAISO’s president, sophomore music-education major, Tereza Latuma.
Though the Chief was officially retired by the University in 2007, many University of Illinois students and alumni still consider themselves his strong supporters. There is even a group, Students for Chief Illiniwek, which still appoints an unofficial Chief each year.
“We knew people had different perspectives on this, that there was a lot of love for the Chief as well as a lot of people who did not like him,” Latuma said. “So this was a really great way to promote the alternative opinion.”
The event, which lasted from March 1 through March 10, was held at the Native American House. The shirts students received when they traded in their Chief apparel were donated by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations from a previous event.
“Basically, it’s a regular Illinois blue logo, and so it’s just a way to exchange a shirt and you wouldn’t be out any article of clothing in your closet,” Latuma said.
Andres Silva, a sophomore psychology major and fellow NAISO member designed the posters for the event, which he then distributed around campus.
“I noticed handing out flyers prior to Unofficial, there’d be some people I would encounter with the shirts, and I’d deliberately go up to them and be like, ‘Hey, here’s a flyer, you should go trade in your shirt,'” Silva said. “So people know about it, people know this is an issue.”
At the time of this interview, Latuma said 10 shirts had been exchanged, which her organization considered a great victory.
“You think that’s like a small number, but like the first shirt that came in, the people who were there were so emotional to that, because we never in our lives thought something like this could be successful in any way or form because of the love that this campus has for this image, which is not a positive image for Native Americans” she said. “So just the fact that we got shirts at all was incredible for us.”
Not all students, however, see the Chief as a negative image. Omar Cruz, a sophomore majoring in applied health sciences and the current unofficial portrayer of Chief Illiniwek, said to him, the Chief represents unity.
“I am a non-white, undocumented student,” Cruz said. “But during the three-in-one, when everyone is singing ‘Hail to the Orange, Hail to the Blue,’ it doesn’t matter what my race is, or what anyone’s race is. Everyone joins arms and sways together, and that’s what unity and the Chief are to me.”
Ivan Dozier, a former unofficial portrayer of the Chief who got his master’s in crop sciences from the University last year, said he wished those who opposed the Chief would offer something in return.
“I would like them to give something rather than take something away,” Dozier said. “I am a Native American student myself, and seeing depictions of Native American culture get taken away horrifies me.”
Dozier said he hopes the two sides can get to a place where they are no longer “exchanging hate” back and forth about the issue, and that the Chief can ultimately return. Latuma’s dream for the Chief, however, is that it becomes a distant memory.
“I always said that like my hope is that my kids can come here, and this would be talked about as like, ‘Oh man, do you remember when the University of Illinois used to do that?'” Latuma said. “That’s many years down the road, but I know that every year is important for us to keep standing up for the different issues we have, because it is a continuous fight for the generations of our organization to come.”
For more on this issue, check out this video here.
This project took by far the longest of any to put together, but I am pleased with how it turned out. I know I went over the time limit, but I felt like I had to include someone supportive of the Chief to cover all aspects of this issue. Plus, everyone I interviewed was really passionate. There were no short interviews. I had an entire video interview with Ivan Dozier I could not include for lack of time. This is an issue I had wanted to research more for a long time, and I was glad I got to do it with this project.