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NCAA Bans Indian Mascots

August 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKET: The moment the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek bursts onto the football field is a thrilling one for many Illinois students and alumni. It’s also a heart-stopping moment for the performer. Tom Livingston remembers the feeling from his two seasons as Chief Illiniwek in the late 1980s.

TOM LIVINGSTON: When you would burst forth from a hidden position into fifty or sixty thousand people, it was like soaring over a cliff and up into a thundercloud. I mean, the energy, the electricity you felt not only as the person portraying Chief Illiniwek, but also the person observing it, either in an arena or in the stadium, and I think that makes people feel very strongly about it, very attached to it.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: But the chief’s performance does not evoke the same feelings in everyone who watches. In 1989 Charlene Teeters, a Native American graduate student, launched a solitary protest against Chief Illiniwek. In the documentary, “In Whose Honor,” she says her protest began after taking her two young children to an Illinois game.

CHARLENE TEETERS: My kids, my kids just sank in their seats. My daughter tried to become invisible. My son tried to laugh. With me is the sadness that still won’t leave me. But the sadness turns to anger just like that.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The protests against using Native American imagery in athletics have grown over the last thirty years. In August, the NCAA stepped in and banned colleges and universities that use what it termed hostile and abusive mascots, nicknames or imagery from hosting post-season play. Eighteen schools were affected. Florida State University immediately appealed, saying there was nothing hostile or abusive about their Chief Osceola or Seminole nickname. This week the NCAA relented, citing the Seminole Tribe’s approval of the use of their name. The University of Illinois is also considering an appeal. Larry Eppley chairs the university’s board of trustees. He was very disturbed by the words used by the NCAA.

LARRY EPPLEY: And they characterized the traditions of 18 institutions as hostile and abusive.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Why did you object to that so strongly?

LARRY EPPLEY: Well, we’ve been living with it for quite a long time. Almost since the inception of the debate over Chief Illiniwek rhetoric played a large part in it, and what we found was rhetoric did more to divide people than to ever steer anybody towards an outcome that they found acceptable. It created sort of a knife edge: Either the chief is up or it’s down.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The passions and the rhetoric surrounding the chief and the team’s nickname, the Fighting Illini, do run high. Unlike the Seminole Tribe in Florida, the Peoria Tribe, the direct descendants of a group of tribes known as the Illiniwek or the Illini, do object to Chief Illiniwek and have asked the University of Illinois to stop using what they consider to be a degrading racial stereotype. So far the university continues to support the chief.

LARRY EPPLEY: It’s tradition; it’s university tradition. These things take root. They pass on from generation to generation. I can’t tell you how many cards and letters we get from a grandparent saying I’m so happy my granddaughter or grandson is down there; I’m so happy the chief is still there.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The chief’s ceremony has been a part of the university’s athletic events since 1926. Former chief Tom Livingston says the authentic costume and the ceremonial dance he performed in 1998 and as still performed today are designed to honor the Native Americans’ history and their contributions to Illinois’ culture.

TOM LIVINGSTON: I’ve looked tribal leaders in the eyes, I’ve looked other people that this is special to, and it ranges from “we’re okay with it” to “it’s beautiful; it’s inspirational.” There are some hard-nosed alumni who come back years later, and those tears begin to shed when they are inspired from an earlier day when they were younger at the university. And the chief attaches that to them, I think, often.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Chief Illiniwek’s performance is closely tied in with the 300-strong Illinois marching band. At the first practice of the year the band is working hard on the classics, like the school’s alma mater. Band director Tom Caneva says the chief is a critical part of the halftime atmosphere.

TOM CANEVA: You know, at a lot of the universities at halftime, the people in the stands leave and go get hot dogs and drinks and things. At Illinois they stay and, you know, we hope they are there to see the Marching Illini perform, but, you know, they’re there to see Chief Illiniwek perform.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Less than 1 percent of the 38,000 students at the university are Native American. Many of the Illinois students we spoke to strongly support the chief.

DANA MAZZUCA: I’m pro-chief ever since I’ve been here. I don’t think it’s disrespectful in any way.

STEPHANIE LULAY: I think it’s a great tradition for our school, and I think if it did change, a lot of alumni would be upset.

JESSICA WYNNS: I think that he should stay. I don’t understand why there’s such a dispute about it.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The gulf between those who support the chief and those who are offended by him is deep. Native American Shannon Kobe watched a performance by the chief last season.

SHANNON KOBE: I, frankly, was personally just shocked and appalled.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Why is it racist?

SHANNON KOBE: It’s reducing Indians to feathers, buckskin, beads. That’s not what our culture is about. It’s just narrowing in on one very small aspect of our culture, and in the Indian culture dancing has never been used solely for entertainment value. It’s always had religious, other connotations.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Kobe, an attorney, has sued the University of Illinois, charging that continuing to allow the chief to be the university’s symbol violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act. Professor Stephen Kaufman has objected to Chief Illiniwek and the nickname Fighting Illini for years. He thinks the university should have jumped at the chance the NCAA ruling gave it to end the controversy.

STEPHEN KAUFMAN: For so many years the leadership of the campus and the board of trustees have not been able to find a way out, and here the NCAA is stepping forth presenting an extraordinary opportunity, and instead of taking that opportunity, Mr. Eppley appears to be squabbling over language used by the NCAA.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Do you think the trustees were on their way to reaching some sort of consensus?

STEPHEN KAUFMAN: The trustees have been on their way for 15 years. It’s a good thing they don’t have to pay tuition.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Illinois’ football team is not worried. There is no post-season play in football, and Illinois does not have a large-enough facility to host NCAA post-season play for basketball. But all Illinois sports would be affected if schools follow the NCAA’s strong suggestion that schools not schedule games with any school that uses native-American imagery. The new NCAA policy doesn’t take effect until next February. The University of Illinois and the 16 remaining affected schools have until then to appeal.