Friday, March 25, 2005

Suits over Chief Illiniwek wasting time, resources


Pantagraph Editorial
Friday, March 25, 2005

Suits over Chief Illiniwek wasting time, resources

While the Fighting Illini are battling on the basketball court, Chief Illiniwek is battling in other courts -- the Cook County Circuit Court and U.S. District Court.

The former is where the Illinois Native American Bar Association and two individuals, a U of I-Chicago student and a Champaign resident filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois Board of Trustees claiming use of the Indian symbol violates state constitutional rights of American Indians as well as the board policies against racial discrimination.

The latter is where five American Indians filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against the Honor the Chief Society, claiming their rights were violated when they were barred from a party for the outgoing Chief Illiniwek at a Champaign restaurant.

This issue has been debated over and over. It never goes away, although it flares up from time to time. With the university in the spotlight as it battles for the NCAA championship, this is one of those "flare up" times.

Supporters of Chief Illiniwek say the symbol honors the people who lived in this area before it became a state, the people who gave the state its name.

Opponents say, regardless of intentions, the use of the Indian symbol perpetuates damaging racial stereotypes and makes Native American students and staff feel uncomfortable -- a "hostile environment," in the legalese of anti-discrimination law.

The university has turned aside previous attempts to end the use of Chief Illiniwek. In 1990, the U of I Board of Trustees voted to keep the Chief. That position hasn't been reversed, but it has been muddied by vague pronouncements, such as one last fall, that confuse the situation.

In September, trustees approved a resolution stating, "The state's heritage and its American Indian culture and traditions shall be preserved, affirmed and publicly celebrated." The board says it is still trying to reach a consensus in the university community, but that could be impossible.

Lawsuits such as the ones filed this month in state and federal courts do nothing to resolve the issue. They merely waste time and money and cause each side to dig their heels in deeper.


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