The Magazine


Chief Illiniwek is gone, but not forgotten.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Champaign, Ill.

I was a little apprehensive as I awaited the Illinois-Penn State football game last Saturday. It would be the first time in 64 years that I attended a game in the beautiful old Memorial Stadium without Chief Illiniwek dancing at halftime. The Chief was gone, victim of the political correctness police who had been after him for 15 years. So I expected sadness, but not the unusual presentation that took place in his absence. It evoked a mixture of melancholy and joy.

I had first been thrilled by the Chief's graceful and noble dance on October 10, 1942, when I was 11 years old and had finally talked my father, an Illinois grad ('22), into taking me to Champaign for a game. Since then I had seen him perform at dozens of games (I attended all of them in 1948-1951, when I was an undergraduate at the university). But liberal activists began to lobby against him around 1990 as an insult to Native Americans. Finally, the university capitulated to unbearable pressure from the NCAA and Illinois Democratic politicians. The Chief was really gone.

But only in body, it turned out, not in spirit. I was advised to watch closely at halftime, based on what had happened three weeks earlier in the season home opener against Western Illinois. In the past, the magnificent Marching Illini band would end its halftime performance playing the school's marching songs interspersed with the Chief's war hymn. The band would form ILLINI in block letters and march down the field. Hidden until then by the ranks of the marching band members, the Chief would suddenly appear and--cheered on by 70,000--would begin the stylized dance that had started in 1926.

And now the band was going through that time-honored routine, the same music and the same marching routine--without the Chief! From the capacity crowd and especially the student sections, came shouts of "Chief! Chief!" It was an eerie spectacle. Illiniwek without the Chief was a little like Hamlet without the prince. A chill went through my body, and tears came to my eyes.

How sad that the cramped little minds in the NCAA and the Illinois legislature had for no good reason ended this ritual that had run for 80 years and hurt nobody. Yet the sadness was overridden by a joyous affirmation that students and alumni alike were cheering the memory of what had been taken from them. Earlier that week I saw many students--women mostly--wearing shirts with one word on the front: CHIEF. It was a triumph of the human spirit over the dead hand of political correctness.

The creation of Illiniwek as the symbol of the university's football team was inspired by legendary Coach Bob Zuppke, who called the Chief "the full Indian man--physical, intellectual, spiritual." Not for 63 years was there any protest or allegation of racist motives. But once encouraged, the anti-Chief campaign expanded and proliferated. The NCAA branded Chief Illiniwek one of the "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic national origin mascots."

Like Illinois, colleges all over America adopted Indian nicknames, symbols, and mascots for their football teams--not to mock the country's defeated native population but to inspire warrior-like fierceness on the gridiron. Many colleges--such as Stanford ("Indians") and Miami of Ohio ("Redskins")--quickly abandoned their old banners. Florida State stubbornly remained the Seminoles with Chief Osceola as their symbol, earning a pass from the NCAA thanks to approval from the Seminole tribe, which received scholarship aid from the university. Illinois refused at first to abandon its tradition but was unable to copy Florida State's escape route by subsidizing the Illini tribe. The real Illini are extinct, most of them wiped out in the 1760s by inter-tribal warfare.

The University of Illinois resisted the NCAA for years, enduring actual sanctions. But the threat to the school's purse strings by hostile Democratic state legislators brought university administrators to their knees. The NCAA has relented in its earlier demand that the nickname Illini also be discarded, but liberal activists protest that as well as the "Illiniwek without the Chief" halftime exercise.

As I watched the Marching Illini's hollow presentation, I fantasized that this shell of a ritual would be retained and some day in some way, the tyrants of political correctness would lose their power. Or will memory fail first, and even what little is left of the ritual disappear?

Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist and author of a memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.