Illinois fans still divided over use of mascot
Some support NCAA ban while others cheer for Chief Illiniwek.
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Controversial symbol: The Chief, portrayed by student Kyle Cline, takes part in the pregame festivities before Illinois plays its home game against Rutgers. -- Darrell Hoemann / Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Chief Illiniwek danced at halftime of the University of Illinois' football opener Saturday to the enthusiastic rhythmic clapping of thousands who added their approval with long, deep chants of "CHIEEEEEF," "CHIEEEEEF."
There were cries of protest, too, but they went largely unheeded as Kyle Cline, a student dressed in buckskins and turkey feathers, took the Chief Illiniwek tradition into its 80th season.
He double-stepped the length of the football field, doubled back to stand at midfield through the singing of the "Three-in-One" medley of Illinois songs and finished with his solo dance, a lively performance full of high kicks and jumps.
A mockery of that dance was performed earlier outside Memorial Stadium by William Cook, a man wearing long braids and a Chicago Blackhawks shirt painted to add: Nobody's Mascot. He hopped and jumped in a frenzied manner, finally jumping up to touch both toes.
His dramatic demonstration was meant to show that the time-honored Chief Illiniwek dance mocks true Native American culture, and his fellow protestors, standing beneath a sign proclaiming "NCAA IS RIGHT," agreed.
Most Illini fans trooping past him on the west side of Memorial Stadium just shook their heads.
No one on this campus needed to ask what was meant by the sign, which referred to the Aug. 5 announcement by the NCAA that Illinois was one of 18 universities that would not be allowed to use their Native American nicknames, mascots or symbols at NCAA-sponsored championships.
The NCAA cannot tell its members what it can do on their own campuses, however. The NCAA policy also does not go into effect until Feb. 1, and other schools, most notably Florida State, have successfully appealed. Florida State was able to show that Seminoles in the state supported the use of their name.
Illinois is the biggest university still on the list and has one of the most controversial figures in the person of the Chief.
Officially, the University of Illinois still is considering its next move as newspaper columnists, radio call-in shows and letters to the editor debate the question.
In the meantime the Chief dances, fans wear CHIEF T-shirts and Chief shirts, hats and souvenirs are on sale just yards from the small group of protesters.
The four who turned out to back the NCAA's decision blamed the early hour (the game began at 11 a.m.) and the holiday weekend for the small turnout. Besides, not everyone who agrees with them wants to stand around holding a poster.
"There was a time when people would spit on us or throw beer on us," said Sherry Naanes, who said she has been taking this stand for about 10 years.
Roger L. Fontana, an anthropology student at Champaign's Parkland College who said he is one-quarter Cherokee, takes special exception to the Chief Illiniwek dance.
"Real Indians were not allowed to do their own dances when the Illiniwek tradition began in 1927," Fontana said. "Native American dancing was made illegal in 1890, right after the massacre at Wounded Knee, and when it was allowed again, there were a lot of restrictions on it.
"The dance he does is not accurate. He's dressed as a war chief in a bonnet that would be worn only by someone who had been to war."
Fontana was happy to explain his objections to anyone who would stop. Few did.
Most fans glanced at the group and passed without comment. Some said, "Go, Illini!" And a few paused long enough to shake hands and offer a word of encouragement.
Erin Murphy, an Illinois graduate student, said, simply, "Thanks for being here."
Emily Lewis, 66, a graduate of Illinois and a lifetime resident of Champaign, stopped to ask if the protest group had any buttons or pins she could wear to show her support of the effort to eliminate Chief Illiniwek.
"I think it's a disgrace," she said. "I believe it's a racist symbol."
It's hard to find a consensus anywhere on the subject of Native American nicknames and mascots. Naanes said she knew of Seminoles who didn't support Florida State's choice of mascot.
Courtney Linehan, who writes for the Daily Illini student newspaper, said she saw the protesters outside the stadium and recognized them as regulars. "The controversy isn't new," she said. "It's been going on here for about 15 years.
"I think most people on campus are hoping for a resolution."
One woman in the stands wore a T-shirt with the Illiniwek logo and the message: "It's an Illini thing. You just wouldn't understand."