Centuries ago, in the upper Midwest, there existed a loose confederation of Native American tribes that included, among others, the Cahokia, Tamaroa, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and Peoria. 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 evolved the pronunciation of the state to its present form. In 1818, Illinois became the name of our nation’s 21st state; the name recognizing its collective inhibitants.
The University of Illinois was established in the year 1867. Soon after, it began fielding athletic teams named the “Fighting Illini.” This nickname came from the soldiers for whom Memorial Stadium is named. The soldiers understood the importance of comradery in the face of adversity, and so they chose to name themselves after the Native peoples that established 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.
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 “the Chief”. The intention of the symbol was to reflect the honor and tradition at the University of Illinois. The Chief was not created to portray a real person, rather, a high-minded concept of unity. The Chief’s regalia has a deep symbolism as well, representing the accomplishments of the University as well as unity amongst conflict. The Chief itself was imagined as a fictitious leader for all of the Illini tribes, uniting students of different cultures and backgrounds much in the way that the Native tribes had united to share the land before the University’s existence. The Chief maintains this sense of unity by allowing students of any race or gender to represent the role.
Over the years, the Chief has served as a symbol of belonging and pride for hundreds of thousands of men and women, all proud to call themselves “Illini,” and prouder still to honor the tradition for which the Chief stands. The Chief serves as a symbol, rather than a mascot, by refraining from silly antics during the game and only performing a set routine that has been approved by former portrayers and cultural advisors.
The Chief embodies the attributes we value as alumni, students, and friends of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol of an intangible spirit, filled with qualities to which a person of any background can aspire: goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity. It can be said that the Chief is a reflection of what you see in yourself and your community. If you see honor, respect, and tradition, that's what you provide to the world around you. That being said, the reflection also holds true to yourself if you only see hate and divisiveness. The Chief's primary role was education and engagement: providing an exciting performance that captured the hearts of fans and spectators to draw them in to the world of Native culture and history.
The original dance performed by Lester Leutwiler was 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 each Chief makes their own small edit to the dance. As a result, the current dance is vastly different from the original. The Chief dance is representative of a “fancy dance,” which is performed to capture attention and provide entertainment. The dance is an important part of the Chief tradition that is still passed down to a modern portrayer even today.
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. Schools such as Florida State and Utah were able to partner with local tribes and maintain their imagery. Schools like Hawaii and San Diego State were also able to retain their Native imagery as they did not represent federally recognized indigenous tribes. Illinois was a difficult case because the Chief 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 people. Nevertheless, the NCAA decided that the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma were responsible for the Chief’s fate.
For many years, the Peoria openly supported the Chief Illiniwek tradition. 1995, Don Giles, then Chief of the Peoria Tribe, 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 protesters "don't speak for all Native Americans, and certainly not us."
However, Tribal governments are subject to the same changes in leadership and ideologies as any other government. At the request of the NCAA, The Peoria ultimately voted against supporting the Chief and the symbol was retired from the University on the grounds that it was “hostile and abusive.” In 2013, the Peoria were in talks with the Council of Chiefs, raising the possibility of re-voting, provided the University would partner with the tribe. It was now the University’s turn to decide on the fate of the Chief, but UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise refused to re-open a dialogue.
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 made it their mission to ban from campus any music and imagery that could be associated with the Chief. In 2019, Chancellor Jones announced a mass ban on all Native American names, images, logos, and music that applied not only to the Chief tradition, but any use of Native art 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 the logo and make money from its merchandising. The Honor the Chief Society is not allowed to use the original logo, but continues to produce imagery and materials to represent the proud Indigenous history of Illinois and beyond.