Welcome to the Honor the Chief Society

HONOR the Name, RESPECT the Tradition, EDUCATE the Community

A Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to the Preservation of Positive Native American Symbolism

Our Mission

The Controversy Surrounding Native Imagery in American Athletics

Indigenous Americans have had a unique cultural history. As modern Americans gain a greater understanding for the importance of awareness, equity, and representation, many struggle with the proper way to acknowledge the special story of our Native ancestors.


The prevailing opinion seems to be that it cannot be done and should not be done; to suggest otherwise is often grounds for hostility and violence. This treatment of Indigenous culture and symbolism as a taboo subject is nothing new in our country. The very first settlers of colonial America sought to ban Native American ceremonies, dances, and other forms of cultural expression on the grounds of religion. Bible scholars felt just in suppressing the religious freedoms of those whom they deemed ‘savage’ in order to ‘save their mortal souls’. For decades, boarding schools were established and operated to forcibly sever the ties between Native youth and their traditional attire and language. American educators felt just in their mission to ‘kill the savage and leave the man’ by punishing Native children for practicing their ancestral ways. Why is it, that in an age of enlightenment and progressive opinions, that we seem to regress on the issue of Native American cultures?


Our mission at Honor the Chief Society is to challenge the status quo and demand a more nuanced approach to the conversation surrounding Native American culture, history, and symbolism. We believe that treating the subject as taboo only serves to worsen the divide that we feel in our country today. The bans and edicts against Native names and images only serve to further limit the awareness and representation that modern Indians seek. Instead of burying the past and destroying opportunities for the future, we should instead be asking ourselves how we can do this right. For many, hiding our history may be the easy way out. We choose to honor our history, and challenge institutions throughout the nation to ask themselves how they can do better.

This challenge does not come without its fair share of resistance. There are many in this country who seek to put a definitive end to the problomatic nature of Native names, images, and symbols through dangerous activism and permanent bans. If your community has been targeted by this radical movement, please reach out and join our effort. If you have a town or team organization that uses Native imagery and is concerned about the growing pressure being ignited by these hate groups, we want to work with you to ensure that you are able to keep using Indigenous symbolism in an honorable and respectful way. Together, we can unite to defend the pride, spirit, and truth that has guided us for decades. Together, we can move past the lost battles, and make a stand in the larger war.

Our History

The State

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

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.


The Chief

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 Tradition

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 Dance

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.


The Loss

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 with 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 2007, Illinois lost their time-honored symbol of the Chief. Critics of the Chief waged a war of hate and misinformation. Utilizing riots and protests, anti-Chief activists were able to sway the Illinois board of Trustees into retiring the Illiniwek name and imagery that had represented the school since 1926.

The Battle

In the years following the Chief's retirement, these hate groups have moved on to other communities, making it their mission to erase history through similar means. They put pressure on local schoolboards and corporate sponsors, using hyperbolic language to paint respected Native names and symbols as examples of racism and hate-speech. They identify community leaders who they perceive as threats, often lashing out through online trolling, character defamation, and even physical violence. In the past decade, they have targeted everything from community high schools, to professional teams like the Washington Redskins. The result of their handiwork is the forced removal of Indigenous culture and history, with no conversation as to compromise or even a path forward that recognizes Native imagery in a better or more positive way.


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.


When the Honor the Chief Society was first founded, we made it our mission to stand against these activists, to give to the communities where they wanted to take, and to provide education where they thrived on ignorance. Today, we recognize that our efforts to Honor the Chief marked the first battle in a much larger war against Native American history, tradition, culture, and symbolism. We continue to stand proudly for this noble mission of Honor, Respect, and Education.

Our Symbolism

The “Davis Symbol”


The image was created in 1980 by local artist Jack Davis, also a current member of HTCS.  The Davis Symbol is an important representation of the Chief’s presence as a symbolic icon rather than a mascot.  The Davis Symbol serves as an incomparable image of honor and dignity, helping to secure the Chief as a noble example of how Native American imagery can be enjoyed and appreciated with respect in our modern society.  Regardless of its place in the Chief tradition, the image of the Davis Symbol stands in a league of its own due to the thought, care, and passion that went into creating a brilliant piece of artwork.

It is important to note, that the ownership of The Davis Symbol still resides with the University, who even today produces and profits from merchandise bearing this image.  After the retirement of the logo in 2007, the University ignored the requests of original artist Jack Davis to have the image returned to his control. 



The HTCS Logo

Beginning in 1991, the Honor The Chief Society strives to represent and preserve all of those positive facets of our community which the Chief so perfectly embodied.  However, after the Chief’s retirement, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the Chief tradition without its traditional symbolism.

The HTCS logo shares elements of Native American design, without using the image of a Chief or other human symbolism.  The logo captures the ability to be influenced by Native American style and move forward while acknowledging the past.  The circular appearance of this logo shows the unending influence of the Chief, as well as the Native peoples of this state.  The echoes of our past will forever sound in the efforts of our futures, and the sound of our history will never be forgotten as long as a single heart continues to beat to its rhythm.





The “Paint-In-Motion” imagery was commissioned by the Council of Chiefs in 2011; created by Kurt Wisthuff.  The symbol is used as the primary logo by the Council, as well as the campus RSO Students for Chief Illiniwek.

The face-paint is one of the last aspects of the Chief regalia to be donned by Chief portrayers.  Though the individuals behind the Chief tradition embody positive values in their own right behind the paint, with the regalia on they become part of a tradition that is greater than themselves…no longer representing their individuality, but the collective spirit of an entire University community.

The tradition of wearing face-paint has its roots in Native American culture, where individuals would paint their face for any number of intentions from intimidation to protection.  For the Chief, this “war paint” also represents safety & protection…a symbolic shield painted in the school colors to keep the campus environment safe amongst conflict.

The “Paint-In-Motion” logo signifies this deep meaning, while also showing the capacity of the Chief tradition to be ever-evolving rather than a static image.


Continuing Tradition: ”The Oval Chief”

The “Continuing Tradition” image, also known as “The Oval Chief” was created in 2011 by local artist Ivan N. Dozier.  Ivan created the image using a photo of his son, Ivan “Alex” Dozier dressed in regalia.
This logo is special in a number of ways.  “Continuing Tradition” portrays an actual Native student and was drawn his father, both of whom were born and raised in Illinois.  In this way, the image helps to highlight the modern contributions of Native peoples in Illinois.

“Continuing Tradition” also has a double meaning.  Not only did Alex Dozier continue his family tradition of attending Illinois but he also donned a new Chief regalia himself.  This image recognizes that personal accomplishment, as well as the importance of recognizing leadership and tradition in our modern society.


The Continuing Tradition image is not sponsored, licensed, approved, or endorsed by the University of Illinois and is the property of the original creators.  Chief portrayers recognized on this page are not officially linked with the UIUC tradition, but operate to raise awareness for the campaign to have UIUC reinstate the Chief in its original capacity.

Honor the Chief Society