The first time Native American Ivan Dozier Jr. saw the Chief perform was at a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign football game that his father took him to when Dozier was a child. He said he was bored and restless. At halftime, Dozier remembered, he got up to get something to eat.
But no one was leaving the stands.
“The Chief comes out to the ‘Three-In-One,’ and everyone yells, and they’re clapping, and everyone just thinks it’s awesome,” Dozier said. “And, as a Native American kid, to see that, that was pretty cool.”
Dozier’s father is Cherokee and his mother is “of Irish ancestry.”
When Dozier was in seventh grade, his cousin went to the University of Illinois and became an activist who rallied against the Chief because it offended him. Dozier said he remembers the late-night discussions his cousin and father had back then.
“I chose to get involved when I got to college because I have a unique perspective on the issue and had culminated so much information throughout the years,” said Dozier, currently a graduate student at the University.
The “Chief” symbol at the University of Illinois has been officially retired since 2007. However, people still chant “Chief” while the “Three-In-One” music the mascot used to dance to at football games plays. Students still wear Chief lothing, and the sports bars still have life-sized Chief sculptures and paraphernalia.
The Chief had been retired for two years by the time Dozier started school at the University in 2009, but he became active in the registered student organization Students for Chief Illiniwek.
He is currently the president and unofficial portrayer of the Chief.
Dozier said he is frequently invited to area elementary schools to educate students about Native American culture.
Although Dozier cannot be referred to as “Chief Illiniwek” or the “the next Chief Illiniwek” because of a recent agreement between the University and the Honor the Chief Society, he still is allowed to appear at games in full regalia.
At the games, he visits the stands and raises his arms in the air when the “Three-In-One” beat comes on.
“A symbol itself can have a lot of power, but a lot of it is what you lend to that symbol,” Dozier said. “A lot of people thought it was pretending to be another race or something, but it’s all about how you put the symbol out there. Are you trying to portray it in a positive light, or are you using it to poke fun?”
Dozier said the Chief was portrayed in an honorable and respectful manner. It was meant to help teach people about Native American culture, he said.
Native American mascots spark controversy at other colleges
The controversy of using Native Americans imagery to represent sports teams extends from professional leagues to other college campuses, as well. Throughout the last decade, universities have changed their Native American mascots by choice or obligation as a result of a 2005 NCAA ruling that deemed Native American mascots “hostile and abusive.”
The ruling stated universities would not be able to host postseason tournaments if Native American mascots were used.
Still, some universities have clung on to their Native American associations. Even though it technically changed its mascot to a red-tailed hawk in 1996, the University of Utah has kept its team name as the “Utah Utes.” It also kept its “U” logo adorned with feathers.
Bradley University kept the name “Bradley Braves” from its Native American mascot, which was phased out in 1992. A bobcat mascot was later introduced, and then removed in 2000. Bradley went without a mascot until this year, when the gargoyle “Kaboom” was introduced.
Central Michigan College kept its name “Chippewas,” but dropped its Native American logo. It also eliminated its “Native American drumbeats played by pep bands and other measures.”
Campus Spirit Revival thwarted by opposition
Xochitl Sandoval helped create a University of Illinois group in 2012 called Campus Spirit Revival, but the group has been inactive recently. Sandoval, who graduated this past spring after a public protest against the use of the Chief, attributed the break to group members not being able to handle the stress of “all the attacks” they received while trying to complete school.
When it was active, the group focused on moving away from the Chief to create a new mascot for the University.
Thomas Ferarrell, former Campus Spirit Revival president, said the group did not want to take a stand on the Chief issue and it did not want to publicize that its members were Native American or involved at the Native American House.
Instead, the group wanted university students to come up with ideas for a new mascot.
During the process of holding an art contest for students to create and vote on a new mascot with the support of the Illinois Student Senate, the counter-group Stop Campus Spirit Revivalformed and received more support via Facebook.
Results from the contest conducted on the Illinois Student Senate’s ballot were held in the University’s moot court for five months. When released, a “no change” category received 1,767 votes, followed by 1,369 votes for an “other options” category. Ferarrell said the Illinois Student Senate included these categories at the last minute in the midst of the controversy. An eagle mascot was third runner up with 1,071 votes.
Robin Kaler, a spokesperson for the University, said other than the retirement of the Chief in 2007, there are no plans to select a new mascot. She said the University was always working to balance tradition with the future, and students tend to naturally create traditions.
“We’ve moved on,” Kaler said. “We recognize the history of the Chief and alumni loyalty to the tradition, but the campus is focused on moving forward to face major societal challenges.”
“Traditions evolve,” Kaler said “They happen organically by students.”
Native American student felt ‘oppressed’ at the University
Sandoval said she identifies as “Indigenous” and has Anahuac roots. She said before coming to the University, she did not know about the Chief symbol’s prevalence. She also said she did not know about the controversy and debate that still arise as the mascot’s void perpetuates its presence.
If she had known, she said she would not have come to the University. Then, she said, she would not have to deal with all the anger, pain and exclusion the symbol has made her feel throughout her four years on campus.
During a debate about the Chief that Campus Spirit Revival held last spring, Sandoval opened by talking about the history of Native Americans. She talked about how native people were taken from their families and put into boarding schools in the 1800s. She discussed how, back then, they still were not seen as assimilated, but rather turned into the idea of the “noble savage.”
Sandoval said one of the issues she saw from the beginning of the Chief controversy was that people were not taking the time to learn the history of native people and what it meant to be in regalia.
“If the Chief had been an issue at a university in Chicago, I know I would have been able to get support from my community in trying to educate the public about why this is a racist image,” she said. “But I’m in Champaign, and the majority of students are white rich kids, so it’s hard to get support and not feel really oppressed here.”
Sandoval said it was emotionally, psychologically and spiritually draining to have put so much effort into trying to move on from the symbol. She said despite all of her efforts, people are still pro-Chief as ever and clinging to the symbol.
“This image is a symbol of power in the way that there is this white majority on campus and in the surrounding community that has decided that they have the right to define, display, and honor native people the way that they see fit — not the way that we see fit,” Sandoval said.
According to the University’s Division of Management Information self-reported race and ethnicity statistics, a total of 31 undergraduate students, graduate students and professional staff at the University identified as Native American in Spring 2014.
In the 1997 movie “In Whose Honor?,” Charlene Teters, a leader in the movement to get rid of the use of Native American mascots, said, “I see the mascot as a symbolic display of our leadership. That we control you. We own you. If it was any other religious practice that was being abused, we would hear about it.”
The movie was directed by Jay Rosenstein, a University of Illinois journalism professor.
Dennis Tibbets, an American Indian counselor who appears in the movie, said the issue of racism in this controversy is ignored nationally.
“The irony of the whole thing is here you have Redskins, which is the most blatantly racist symbol, depiction, and term right in the capitol, and everyone is kind of numb to it. They’re all Redskins fans,” Tibbets said.
Study on Chief symbol sheds light on prejudices
A 2005 study at The College of New Jersey found that “when exposed to the American Indian icon, participants are more willing to endorse stereotypes about a different racial minority.”
Psychology professor Dr. Chu Kim-Prieto set up two surveys to see if observing and reading about the Chief symbol would enhance stereotypes and prejudices about Asian-American cultures.
She noted that it is possible heightened stereotyping occurred “because it primed the participants about the racially charged controversy over the continued use of the icon.”
In the experiment, 79 University of Illinois respondents were given separate folders: one-third of the folders were decorated in Chief stickers, one-third in “I” stickers from the Illinois Athletics logo, and one-third were blank. Then, the students answered 25 questions on Asian-American stereotypes and ranked them on a one-to-five scale. The statements said things like “Asian-Americans tend to have less fun compared to other social groups.”
The students who had the folder with the Chief stickers selected more stereotypes on the list than the other students.
A second experiment was conducted with a sample size group of 161 students from the College of New Jersey. Half were given a short story about the history of Chief Illiniwek and half were given a short story about the University arts center. Again, the students who had the Chief Illiniwek story responded to more of the negative Asian-American stereotype questions.
Even though there was nothing misleading or negative written about the Chief, Kim-Prieto’s sample size of students with the Chief responded more negatively to the Asian-American questions in both experiments.