Our Native State
Our organization was founded in Champaign, Illinois in the early 1990s, but the story of our mission dates back much further. Centuries ago, the upper Midwest was home to several tribes, that include but are not limited to the Kickapoo, Mascoutin, Mesquaki, Miami, Odawa, Ojibwe, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Wea. Many of these tribes had their own cultures, customs, and languages, sometimes even clashing with other tribes over these differences. However, some of these tribal Nations, the Cahokia, Tamaroa, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and Peoria, to name a few, saw fit to put aside their differences by coming together to form a loose confederation. In the Algonquin language that many of these tribes shared, the Native inhabitants of the region were collectively known as “ih-LYNN-o-ah.” Together with some effort, these tribes were able to coexist and share the land to construct an amazing cooperative society. Today, locations such as Cahokia Mounds and Starved Rock still offer insights for those interested in learning about various early Native cultures in the region. Over time, French settlers in the region influenced the pronunciation of the state to its present form "Illinois". In 1818, Illinois became the name of our nation’s 21st state; the name recognizing its collective inhabitants.
The University of Illinois
The University of Illinois was established in the year 1867 in Urbana, Illinois. Soon after, it began fielding athletic teams named the “Fighting Illini.” The University attributes this nickname to the World War soldiers for whom their football facility, Memorial Stadium, is named. These soldiers understood the importance of comradery in the face of adversity, and so they chose to name themselves after the Native peoples of Illinois that had established the "Illiniwek Confederacy" as part of the history of their home state. The University was as proud then, as it was for many years, to be associated with the Native peoples for whom the state was named. The Illini attributes of strength, courage, and honor were deeply admired and well-respected among the campus culture and surrounding community.
Native Symbolism at Illinois
In 1926, two Eagle Scouts, Lester Leutwiler and Ralph Hubbard, combined their extensive knowledge of Indian lore and dance that they learned at the World Boyscout Jamboree in Denmark into the creation of a halftime tradition to honor the Indigenous roots of the state and University. Unlike some depictions, theirs was not created to portray a real person, but rather a high-minded concept of unity. An original dance was crated and performed by Lester Leutwiler, inspired by authentic dance moves learned from his time in Boy Scouts. A common practice in Native art is to never exactly replicate the creation of another artist, and so as Leutwiler designated another student to continue his tradition, small edits were made to the performance. As such, several students at Illinois over the years presented their own unique take on this tradition, done in the style of a traditional “fancy dance,” which is performed to capture attention and provide entertainment.
Our Mission Begins
In the 1990s, when the Honor the Chief Society was first founded, our mission was to educate the University community about the importance of recognizing the state's Native American history. During these early years, our ideologies were modeled after the Peoria Nation of Oklahoma, direct descendants of the Illiniwek Confederation. On the subject of the Chief Illiniwek tradition at Illinois, Don Giles, Chief of the Peoria Tribe in 1995, said, "To say that we are anything but proud to have these portrayals would be completely wrong. We are proud. We're proud that the University of Illinois, the flagship university of the state, a seat of learning, is drawing on that background of our having been there. And what more honor could they pay us?" Supporting Chief Giles was another tribal elder, Ron Froman, who stated that the anti-imagery protesters "don't speak for all Native Americans, and certainly not us." Though our organization was founded in response to this controversy at the University, The Honor the Chief Society is not sponsored, licensed, approved, or endorsed by the University of Illinois.
The NCAA Intervenes
For nearly a decade, protestors continued their campaign against Native imagery, eventually reaching a breakthrough by influencing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In 2006, the NCAA ruled that schools with Native imagery must get permission from the tribe they were representing or they would be forbidden from hosting post-season tournaments. Though this ruling deemed Native imagery to be inherently "hostile and abusive", it nevertheless left some room for college teams to maintain their Native names, images, and traditions. Schools such as Florida State and Utah were able to partner with local Seminole and Ute tribes, respectively. Additionally, schools like Hawaii and San Diego State were also able to retain their Native imagery, as the indigenous peoples that they represented were not federally-recognized by the US government, an additional caveat of the NCAA ruling. Illinois was a difficult case because their name and tradition represented a loose confederacy of several tribes, rather than just one. Even more so, the term "Illini" was used to represent the collective inhabitants of Illinois, not just a single demographic. Nevertheless, it was again the NCAA that deemed the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma to be solely responsible for the fate of Chief Illiniwek at Illinois.
Though the Peoria had once supported the University in their attempt to honor Native history, Tribal governments are subject to the same changes in leadership and ideologies as any other governing body. Originally, the Peoria made efforts to abstain from the decision-making process, seeing as the University in question was some 500 miles away from their tribal headquarters in Miami, Oklahoma. The NCAA, however, demanded a definitive vote, in which The Peoria voted against supporting the University's use of Chief Illiniwek as their official symbol. Though this vote was not unanimous (3-2 with 2 abstaining), the issue has not been revisited by decision-makers within the NCAA, Peoria, nor the University of Illinois.
The University Responds
In 2007, the Illinois board of Trustees retired their time-honored symbol of Chief Illiniwek, citing pressure to comply with the NCAA's ruling from the previous year. Critics of the Chief tradition claimed that this move was not enough, and they would not be satisfied until all names, images, and music that could depict or be interpreted as Native American were permanently banned by the University. Our organization maintains the stance that instead of catering to violent demands and treating Native symbolism as a taboo subject, the University should instead revisit their tradition and partner with local tribes to "Honor the Chief" execute their homage in a way that is educational and respectful.
In 2013, Peoria leaders were in talks with partners of our organization, raising the possibility of re-voting on the issue of Native imagery at Illinois, provided the University would partner with their tribe. With the University now in control of its own fate regarding their use of Native symbolism, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise refused to re-open a dialogue. In 2015, Wise resigned the chancellorship prior to the release of emails that Wise had hidden from FOIA requests.
In 2017, UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones announced that the Marching Illini would be banned from playing the “War Chant.” This was viewed as a victory from anti-Chief activists, who have continued their mission to ban from campus any music and imagery that could be associated with Native American culture and history. Subsequently, in 2019, Chancellor Jones made further efforts to appease this faction, announcing a mass ban on all Native American names, images, logos, and music that applied not only to the former Chief Illiniwek tradition, but any use of Native American depictions in official marketing or athletics. This ban is still in place today.
Despite the retirement of the Chief and the ban on Native imagery, the University continues to hold its trademark on their former logo featuring Native imagery and make money from its merchandising. Per an agreement with the University, The Honor the Chief Society is not allowed to use their original logo. Our official stance is that University leaders are being hypocritical by placing a ban on Native imagery, yet continuing to profit on the sale of their "retro" logo that features a depiction of Indigenous culture. We believe this University should relinquish control of the logo to its creator, Jack Davis, so it can be used as intended: representing the proud Indigenous history of Illinois and beyond.
An Ongoing Struggle
In the years following the controversial NCAA decision, stories began to emerge detailing the efforts of anti-imagery hate groups at Universities across the nation. From Illinois to North Dakota, these activists sought to replicate their success at the college level in other communities, making it their mission to erase history through similar means in professional sports and even local high schools.
Understanding the history and methodology of these activists is crucial in guiding how institutions can and should respond to them in a constructive rather than destructive manner. In almost every instance, those calling for the removal of Native names and images focus on targeting local schoolboards and corporate sponsors, using divisive and hyperbolic language to convince decision-makers that respected Native names and symbols are actually examples of racism and hate-speech. Once their campaign has been established, they identify local community leaders who speak out against them as threats. Targeted community members are frequently attacked through online trolling, character defamation, and even physical violence. Activists will justify their violence, either claiming ideological self-defense, or claiming that their victims are inherently guilty of espousing hate by supporting the continued use of Native names and/or symbols. The result of their handiwork is the forced removal of Indigenous culture and history, with no conversation as to compromise, nor a path forward that recognizes Native imagery in a better or more positive way. By refusing to compromise and relying on violent methods, those calling for the removal of Native history and symbolism should be considered among this generation's most successful domestic terrorists.
We have made it our mission to stand against these violent activists; to give to the community where they seek only to take, and provide education where they thrive on ignorance and misinformation. Today, we recognize that our efforts to "Honor the Chief" in our community marked an early battle in a nationwide war against Native American history, tradition, culture, and symbolism. To this day, we continue to stand proudly in this noble mission of Honor, Respect, and Education.