Native American groups applauded the University of Illinois’ decision to no longer allow a “war chant” to be played during sporting events, while some Illini fans were displeased to see the tradition end.
Many critics consider the song — which is tied to the theme of the university’s former mascot, Chief Illiniwek — a stereotypical Native American appropriation. The music, featuring a prominent drum beat, has been played primarily during football games when opponents face third down.
Illinois decided to move on from the tradition, athletic department spokesman Kent Brown said Friday, to be more “inclusive” and because students have not responded to it as much at football games.
“I’ve been saying for many decades (these sports traditions) were race-based, and everything associated with it and the antics of the fans mimicked and trivialized the cultural traditions of our people,” said Charlene Teters, a Native American from the Spokane Tribe who began protesting the Chief in 1989 as an Illinois graduate student. “Whatever steps it takes, they’re stepping in the right direction, and we should applaud that.”
The issue of culturally insensitive sports traditions has been broiling nationally for years.
In 2016, the University of Mississippi’s band ended a nearly 70-year sporting tradition of playing “Dixie,” an unofficial anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The school removed former mascot Colonel Reb from the sidelines in 2003 and stopped selling merchandise featuring the figure in 2010. Ole Miss also removed the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag in a corner.
The Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” caricature and the Washington Redskins’ name and logo have been met with protests. The University of North Dakota changed its nickname from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks.
Illinois has faced decades of criticism for its use of Native American imagery in sports, and the issue has inflamed passions on both sides of the debate. Teters says she was physically attacked and received harassing phone calls in the wake of her activism.
Two years after the NCAA passed a rule that would bar teams from hosting postseason play for the use of potentially offensive Native American imagery, the university’s board of trustees banned the Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007.
But it hasn’t gone away completely.
Illinois said it has no plans to end the “Three-in-One” fight song that has been played since the early 1900s. When it is played at basketball games, some students cross their arms and bow their heads in another act of stereotypical Native American appropriation. Students also wear shirts, not sold by the university, that feature feathers or say “Bring Back the Chief.”
In 2016, Illinois formed an ad-hoc committee to explore adopting a new mascot. Athletic director Josh Whitman said this summer that a new mascot has not been chosen and no timetable has been given for selecting one.
Groups such as the Council of Chiefs and Students for Chief Illiniwek are determined to bring it back as an official mascot. A member is selected each year to perform in the stands at some games without the backing of the university, wearing a headdress, stereotypical Native American clothing and “war paint” on his or her face while performing movements such as crossed arms, stiff walking and deep bowing.
The Chief Illiniwek name and image are trademarks of the university, which restricts student groups from officially using them.
Some Illini fans and former Chief portrayers were upset with the university’s decision to end the war chant.
“When I first heard about the decision, I went through a lot of emotions: disgust, anger,” said Ivan “Alex” Dozier, who portrayed the Chief in an unofficial capacity from 2010 to 2015. “I was hurt. It’s kind of to the point where I am ashamed.
“I have two degrees from the University of Illinois. I used to be proud to say that. I have to check myself before I announce where those degrees came from now. All they offer me is disappointment. They seem far more invested in taking things away and removing things from history.”
Dozier, who identifies as part Cherokee, said the university is “caving” to a segment of people on campus.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to lose part of our culture, to lose part of our history, we need to re-evaluate our motives. Students react passionately to the game-day environment. They’re trying to chip away at our culture and history, university (culture) and Native (culture) alike.”
As first reported by the News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana, athletic department representatives asked members of a student group to stop playing the song with a drum during a soccer match Thursday.
Brown said the decision to end the chant was a collaborative effort among administrative departments and the athletic department.
He said the university has explored for several years whether the war chant was appropriate. He said previous leaders found it inoffensive and kept it.
But Brown said the university circled back to the topic recently and that the chant was being phased out at games in recent years.
Whitman was unavailable to comment due to travel, Brown said.
A request for a comment from Chancellor Robert J. Jones through a university spokeswoman went unreturned.
A representative at Illinois’ Native American House said the decision to stop playing the war chant is positive.
“It comes down to the simple conclusion that our culture and identity is not for sale, entertainment or performance,” she said, requesting anonymity for fear of threats by fans loyal to the Chief. She said Native Americans often become “targets” when the topic of Native American mascots and other imagery in sports arises.
Jay Rosenstein is an Illinois professor who made the 1997 documentary “In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports,” exploring the issue of the Chief mascot. He said the war chant used to be called “Indian.”
“To be clear, it’s a song meant to be a white stereotype of Native Americans,” he said. “If you’re going to be a university that respects all people, this (ban) is something that had to be done.”
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