Xochitl Sandoval is proud of her Native American heritage. She is not proud, however, of her campus’s attitude toward her Native American heritage.
Sandoval, a recent graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, follows the Nahua tradition of her mother’s heritage and has a Rararmuri background from her father. Through volunteering with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Sandoval became interested in learning more about her indigenous culture.
The Nahua and Raramuri are two different groups of indigenous people native to Mexico.
Sandoval said her heritage “is vital.”
“It frames who I am,” she said. “My tradition guides me as a person both on a physical level as well as on a spiritual level.”
Growing up in Chicago, Sandoval felt the community was supportive because it had a large urban Native American population and multiple resources for indigenous people.
Before coming to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sandoval knew that its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, had been removed as the official mascot in 2007. She assumed that since Chief Illiniwek was retired, its presence would be gone.
When she got to campus, though, she said, it was “disheartening” to see people wearing Chief Illiniwek apparel.
Two students in one of Sandoval’s classes wore shirts with the Chief’s image this semester, which prompted Sandoval to email her professor.
“I explained to her that as an indigenous student, this image and every likeness to it represented a complete disregard for American Indian culture and spiritual practices,” Sandoval wrote in the letter.
And that every time I saw it, it was not only an emotional stab, but also an impediment to my academic success.”
Early in the spring semester Sandoval’s senior year, she also wrote an open letter to the administration urging it to ban students from wearing such apparel in classrooms.
In the letter, Sandoval said she considered committing suicide on the quad to show the University how much pain she has endured.
Sandoval’s letter thrust the issue of the Chief back into public discussion.
Sandoval then met with an attorney from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, who said her two options were to attend mediation with the students or to make a presentation to her class.
“I was not, and am not, looking to settle for a Band-Aid solution to this problem that has caused such an immense psychological damage to not only myself, but countless others,” Sandoval wrote in the letter.
Following the publication of Sandoval’s letter, the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization held “Walk with Xochitl” on the campus quad.
With its first appearance in 1926, the Chief has made a lasting impression
Chief Illiniwek made its first appearance at Memorial Stadium in 1926. The Chief was adorned in a buckskin costume that is said to be an authentic replication, according to The Chief Lives, “the official website of the Chief Tradition.”
The university marching band composed the “Three-In-One,” a combination of the “March of the Illini,” the “Pride of the Illini” and “Hail to the Orange” to accompany Chief Illiniwek’s halftime performance, according to The Chief Lives website.
“I thought of him as a symbol of honor and tradition, something to look up to,” said Macaulay Schlicher, a junior studying chemical engineering.
Schlicher said he was disappointed when the Chief was removed as the school’s mascot and thinks Chief Illiniwek was a way of honoring the indigenous people of Illinois.
Sandoval, however, thinks students who share this view should ask Native American people if they think the Chief honors them and their culture.
“Since white students created this mascot thing and the majority of people who have been portraying the Chief are white,” Sandoval said, “it would be good for them to question themselves and where they got their information and stating that something is honoring when it’s not part of their own culture.”
Documentary on the Chief highlights controversy
Journalism professor Jay Rosenstein explored proponents’ and opponents’ views about Chief Illiniwek in his 1997 “In Whose Honor?” documentary.
The documentary focuses on Charlene Teters, a former graduate student and member of the Spokane Tribe, who began protesting the Chief in 1989 after taking her children to a basketball game.
“I hadn’t really given the Chief a thought,” Rosenstein said. “He was just kind of this dancing guy, and that’s as much as I ever thought about it. When she talked about it, I realized it was the first time I had ever heard a Native American person talk about it.”
Rosenstein was shocked to hear how offensive the Chief was to Native Americans. He said he began to understand the feelings of those who opposed the Chief through conducting interviews for the film.
“To put it simply, Native American people don’t want other people to dress up as them and pretend to be them,” Rosenstein said. “It’s really that simple, and people who are for the Chief — who are generally white people — can say, ‘Well it’s respectful and it’s honorable,’ but that’s irrelevant.”
Rosenstein thinks it is irrelevant because the people being represented do not think the Chief is respectful or honorable. Teters voices similar feelings, which she explains in the film.
Teters said in the film that she began publicly voicing her opposition to Chief Illiniwek after her young children saw him at the basketball game. She said her children were enraged watching someone imitate a chief, a figure they were raised to respect.
Attire has sacred meaning
Sandoval shares those feelings. She said it takes time, dedication and patience to be able to wear attire similar to Chief Illiniwek’s because a chief’s attire has sacred meaning.
“You’re disrespecting a political and spiritual leader of a community who has taken it upon themselves to live their life in a way that is good,” Sandoval said. “And to reduce that to a performance at halftime is beyond disrespectful and ignorant and racist and a whole bunch of other things.”
Nonetheless, Schlicher said he thinks Chief Illiniwek gives Native Americans a positive representation and dispels what he thinks are common ideas about Native Americans.
“Honestly, this is bad, but when I think of Indians, I think of casinos and alcohol. Chief Illiniwek stood for everything besides that,” Schlicher said.
To Schlicher, Chief Illiniwek was a symbol of respect and honor, and he hopes to see the Chief return. Schlicher does not see this happening, however, as university Chancellor Phyllis Wise has continuously urged students to move forward.
University holds referendum on mascot options
A referendum was held last year to gauge student opinions about a mascot change. “No change” was the most popular selection, receiving 15 percent of the vote. “Other” was the second most popular selection, receiving 12 percent of the vote.
Despite Chief Illiniwek’s formal retirement, some continue to feel its presence on campus. Marisa Duarte, a postdoctoral fellow in the American Indian Studies Program, came to the University last year.
Duarte is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which is located in southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Coming to the University was shocking for Duarte, who characterized the environment as hostile.
“The mascot is only a symptom of a bigger problem,” Duarte said. “The mascot is not the real issue. It’s the issue that is manageable. That’s why people think if you eradicate a mascot all of the sudden, you’re making it a racially sensitive climate.”
Duarte said her experience at the University has been isolating, as she feels she has to pretend she is not Native American to avoid confrontation.
“It’s easy to get disorientated and to make friends with somebody and speak to a professor who you’re expecting to gain wisdom and philosophy from only to find that this person who claims to know about native stuff really knows nothing,” Duarte said.
To avoid confrontation, Duarte said her circle of friends at the University is relatively small. One person she feels comfortable talking to is Asian American studies professor Christina Chin.
Chin discusses the impact of racial representations in her classes. She said misrepresentation can harm one’s cultural identity and perpetuates racial stereotypes.
“If you were to walk around campus and see this ugly, very racialized image of your community and your people, then I don’t think it creates a very welcoming and inclusive environment for students,” Chin said.
Native American population on campus remains small
There were 41,505 students reported on campus for spring 2014, according to the Division of Management Information’s On-Campus Student Enrollment by Curriculum, Sex, Race/Ethnicity and Residency report. Of those students, 31 self-identified as Native American.
Duarte thinks the small number of Native American students is problematic. Chin wonders if the lack of representation contributes to the campus environment for Native American students.
“There are so few folks on this campus that identify as part of that community, it’s hard for them to find their voice and to create more avenues for social change in many ways,” Chin said.
One reason Sandoval thinks there are few Native American students on campus is because the University is a “hostile” environment. Rosenstein and Duarte also do not feel the University has created a welcoming environment for Native American students despite retiring the mascot.
Rosenstein said he does not think the University has been vocal enough about condemning the use of Chief Illiniwek and encouraging students to move forward.
“It’s sort of like you have a bullet wound and you put a Band-Aid over it, or you even stitch it up, but you don’t pull out the bullet,” Rosenstein said. “It never really heals, and that’s what’s happened here. You have to take the bullet out, clean the wound, then you patch it up and it will heal.”
Student hopes for a more diverse campus
Duarte said she hopes the University invests in promoting a more diverse environment and hires more Native American faculty. Until then, she would not recommend that Native American students attend the University.
“If we had more native faculty we could talk about the most brilliant parts of indigenous thought, and that would give students a way to feel good about themselves and positive about their heritage rather than this clown that makes them feel isolated, abused and powerless,” Duarte said.
Sandoval, who graduated this past year, is hopeful the University will listen to her concerns and show its support of indigenous students.
“The University hasn’t done anything,” Sandoval said. “Besides banning it in the classroom, I think they should issue a formal apology to the native students who have been on campus, some of which have had to leave the campus precisely because the environment was so hostile.”
Reporter Claire Everett contributed to this story.