The WISCH LIST
I used to be a Fighting Illini.
Now I’m just a frustrated one.
And it’s not nearly so much because of the University of Illinois’ many losses on the football field and basketball court in recent years as it is from all the ways my alma mater continues to fail the vast majority of its alumni and fans.
As well as Native Americans – but not in the way most think.
Last week, news broke that U. of I. had abruptly banned the “War Chant” music – a rhythmic drum beat and hand clapping – from all Illini sporting events, including football games where it’s been a defensive third-down fixture for decades, but won’t be for today’s season opener.
Critics argue that War Chant is offensive to Native Americans and that supporters should get over it because it’s “just a song.” Supporters of War Chant, meanwhile, argue that it indeed is “just a song” and critics should get over taking offense to everything. Personally, news of the ban left me with a mix of emotions ranging from sadness to frustration to exhaustion. But mostly I was disappointed.
Because with this deeply complex issue, the truth is that U. of I. banning War Chant isn’t really just about a song. Rather, big picture-wise, it’s yet another step in the university’s maddening campaign to eradicate all things related to this state’s Native American heritage rather than find ways to better embrace it.
As readers of this column know, I’ve long been a defender of the Chief Illiniwek tradition, but I’ve also always acknowledged how the Chief was never perfect. And for decades it was the enormous failure of the university’s administration to not work toward developing the beloved symbol into a true educational tool that could raise awareness about Native American heritage and tangibly benefit their communities.
In May 2013, the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed Illiniwek – did that work independently by submitting a plan to the U. of I. administration that would have brought back an adapted version of the Chief for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis. The Peoria of Oklahoma, one of the original tribes of long-vanished Illini Confederation, expressed a willingness to be involved with adapting the Chief tradition, but only if the university itself was on board with the idea.
Inexplicably, it wasn’t. Former Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise refused to consider the benefits of what was described as a non-dancing Chief whose appearances would be tied to fundraising activity for the Peoria Tribe, the U. of I. and Native American organizations.
By forsaking that opportunity, Illinois abandoned a true win-win. Alumni and fans would have been thrilled to see the Chief back on the field. The Peoria Tribe would have been honored – along with this state’s heritage – with a Native American student wearing regalia approved by the tribe. And the university, the Peoria and other Native American groups would have benefited financially from monies raised through apparel sales or other revenue streams.
Four years later, U. of I. has still done nothing to embrace the Peoria Tribe or better educate Illinoisans about our state’s forebears. It’s done nothing to support the Nike N7 Fund that benefits Native American communities, despite being a Nike apparel school. It’s done nothing to evolve its game day experience for fans who adored honoring the proud people who lived here before us.
But it has banned a drum beat.
This week, U. of I. Chancellor Robert Jones and athletic director Josh Whitman said that the War Chant decision was made in the name of “education” and “leadership.” But from the university on this issue, I’ve only ever seen the opposite of that.
Frustrated Illini, indeed.