CHAMPAIGN — Nearly 100 demonstrators stood outside the main entrance to the State Farm Center chanting, “Down with the Chief,” and holding signs demanding a new university mascot before Illinois’ final home basketball game Thursday.
Fans wearing symbols of Chief Illiniwek walked by, some thumping the logo on their jackets or waving an orange flag with the image of a Native American wearing a headdress.
A group of fans had designated the game — a 93-86 loss to No. 9 Purdue — “Paint the Hall Chief” in hopes of inspiring the crowd to wear clothing with the logo on it. Many did, and some held up printed orange signs with the Chief’s image.
The demonstrators aimed to provide a dissenting voice to the fans who want to bring back the Chief, as well as to urge the university to select a mascot and ban fans from dressing up as the Chief at sporting events.
“I’m here representing who I am as a person,” said junior Lauren Kirby, who said she is from the Alaskan Athabascans. “I am not a mascot. I am not a symbol. That’s why I am here today.”
The Chief issue has been roiling at Illinois for decades.
The school banned the Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007, two years after the NCAA ruled that teams using potentially offensive Native American imagery would be banned from hosting postseason play.
In October, the homecoming parade came to a standstill for about 10 minutes when a group of anti-Chief protesters blocked a car carrying Chancellor Robert Jones. They protested the entry in the parade of the Honor the Chief Society, which included a student dressed up as Chief Illiniwek.
In a drizzle outside the State Farm Center before tipoff Thursday, anti-Chief demonstrators chanted and offered cards to fans that explained the NCAA ruling and why they say the Chief exploits Native Americans.
“Chief is racist,” demonstrators chanted. “No Chief in our town. Shut it down. Shut it down.” Students and faculty held signs that read, “New mascot now” and “Let the Chief go.”
One fan walked back and forth several times in front of the row of demonstrators, patting the Chief logo on his orange and blue jacket. Another man yelled, “Long live the Chief.” Two fans walked by and shouted, “Make America great again.”
“These students are naive and don’t know what’s going on,” said Dick Barker, who said he graduated from the university in 1961 and has been a longtime Illinois fan. “It’s Native Americans looking to get something out of it. … It’s only the Native American people who could gain something by fighting the university. They’ll try to get extra benefits from them. There’s 200,000 alumni who grew up with the Chief and think he’s terrific.”
University officials asked the demonstrators to move farther from the main entrance, and they said they were told, per university rules, they could not protest inside the arena.
Several pro-Chief fans entering the arena declined to provide their names to the Tribune. One stopped to chat with demonstrator Rahul Raju, a student senate chairman. They talked about various tribes and the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout U.S. history.
“We’re trying to convey a real sense that the continuing presence of the Chief — even unofficially — does lasting damage,” Raju said. “Inaction itself is painful. That the university’s tacit condoning of practicing of the Chief (is wrong).”
The university has been seemingly stuck in limbo on this issue for more than a decade. Earlier this season, it banned the “War Chant” from being played at sporting events.
There have been discussions about implementing a mascot, most recently in 2016 with an exploratory committee, but the issue has been shelved recently. The student government this year passed a resolution that the university must remove the Chief symbol from facilities.
The Chief Illiniwek name and image are university trademarks, so student groups can’t officially use them. But the tension — and the image — is present at most games.
After the playing of the “Three-in-One” song at halftime, fans bellow, “Chieeeeeef.” Many fold their arms in stereotypical Native American mimicry. At a few games each season, a student from a group not sponsored by the university emerges from an upper concourse into the view of fans, dressed in stereotypical Native American costume with a headdress and “war paint” and bows to the fans with a stoic expression as music plays.
That student, who is elected as part of the Honor the Chief Society, was expected to make an appearance at halftime Thursday but did not. As the “Three-in-One” played, fans held up jackets with the Chief logo and pointed to it on their shirts. Some folded their arms in front of them. Some in the Orange Krush student section yelled a stereotypical Native American “whoop, whoop, whoop” cry.
At a game earlier this season, university professor and documentary filmmaker Jay Rosenstein was arrested for allegedly videotaping a former Chief portrayer in a State Farm Center bathroom and was placed on paid leave. He said Thursday his suspension has been lifted.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said in an email to the Tribune: “As a top public research university we take pride in being an institution where serious societal issues are discussed and debated and where an individual’s freedoms of speech and expression are respected whether in a classroom or in an athletic arena. But we are also committed to ensuring that everyone who attends events on our campus can enjoy them safely. … Chief Illiniwek has been retired for a decade. We must find a path that recognizes the history of Chief Illiniwek while building our future without it at Illinois.
At a speech to university employees found online, Jones said of the Chief, “Its legacy today throws disruptive shadows across every aspect of our mission and divides our university community.”
He added: “Symbols and mascots are meant to bring university communities together. It is very, very clear this one is tearing us apart. We aren’t going to get through this by assigning blame or pointing fingers … or trying to do the math to pretend this thing can simply be reduced to a minority-versus-majority issue.”
Jones also expressed concerns about potential violence erupting.
Athletic director Josh Whitman declined to comment about Thursday’s protests. An athletic department spokesman said this is a university issue, not an athletic department issue.
Asked after the game about the demonstrations, Illinois coach Brad Underwood said he was unaware of them until informed shortly before tipoff.
“If you think for one second I’ve even thought about that … ” Underwood said. “I’ve had about eight hours of sleep in the last three days. … I guess I need to dive into my history a little bit. I’m worried about our basketball team.”
Whitman has said previously he is in favor of continuing constructive dialogue about the issue.
“We’ve had conversations,” said student government vice president Joseph Domanski, who held a sign at the demonstration that read, “Respect Indigeneity #NotOurChief.”
“It’s time to take action,” Domanski said. “It’s time to rip off the Band-Aid.”