Why Not Go With a Winner? | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Why Not Go With a Winner? 

The more you know about the Illini Indians' history, the less sense it makes to keep Chief Illiniwek as a mascot.

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Last month, state senate president Emil Jones threatened to "scrutinize" the University of Illinois' budget unless the school bans its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, from dancing at Fighting Illini football and basketball games.

"I don't like my tax dollars going toward the stereotyping of any individual," Jones grumbled, before comparing the Chief's supporters to segregationists.

It's worthwhile to ask why, in the 21st century, the flagship university of a progressive state entertains its sports fans with an 80-year-old ethnic stereotype. But here's a more important question: Why are our teams named after the hapless Illini Indians, who were kicked around by most of the Division One tribes in the midwest and finally driven out of the state?

The Illini, who were more commonly called the Illinois, had many good qualities. The Sieur de Liette, a French explorer who met them in the late 17th century, wrote that "there were never better people made than they....They have tapering legs which carry their bodies well, with a very haughty step, and as graceful as the best dancer. The visage is fairer than white milk....The teeth are the best arranged and the whitest in the world."

When it came to fighting, though, the Illini were patsies.

In 1680 the Iroquois of the Great Lakes region were on the warpath, seeking new lands in which to trap the beaver they traded to the Dutch and the English for tools and weapons. Disciplined and militaristic, the Iroquois were the Prussians of North America. They terrorized other tribes, amusing themselves by "caressing" their prisoners--slicing off their fingers with clamshells, setting hot coals on their naked bodies, burning them alive. On September 10 of that year, a Shawanoe Indian raced into an Illini village near the present site of Utica bearing a dire message: the Iroquois were coming.

Panic broke out. The frightened Illini threw their forge and all their tools into the Illinois River, ferried their women and children to a nearby island, then returned to the village to paint their faces, sing war chants, and prepare for the invaders. The next day they crossed the river to confront a band of about 500 Iroquois armed with guns and swords.

Here's how historian Francis Parkman describes the battle in France and England in North America: "With unwonted spirit, for their repute as warriors was by no means high, the Illinois began, in their fashion, to charge."

The Iroquois chased them back across the river, after which the Illini burned their village, retreated to the island where they'd hidden their families, and paddled all the way to the Mississippi, the Iroquois in pursuit. When a small band of Illini made the mistake of remaining on the eastern bank, the Iroquois attacked them.

"The men fled, and very few of them were killed," writes Parkman. "But the women and children were captured to the number, it is said, of seven hundred."

Parkman, who praised the Iroquois as "the Indian of Indians," had little regard for the Illini, calling them "cowardly and slothful...and addicted to practices which are sometimes supposed to be the result of a perverted civilization. Young men enacting the part of women were frequently to be seen among them."

He wasn't the only historian with a low opinion of the tribe's military prowess. Remarking on the name Illiniwek, which means "superior men" in Illini, the authors of the WPA Guide to Illinois declared that it "was not earned in war, for they were often defeated by the Iroquois and the northern lake tribes, sometimes by smaller numbers than their own."

The Illini made their last stand in 1769, after a rash tribal leader stabbed and killed the great chief Pontiac. Pontiac's allies, the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, swept down from the north and, according to legend, besieged the Illini at a bluff on the Illinois River. The defenders ran out of provisions and died of hunger, which is why the site is now called Starved Rock.

At the beginning of the 19th century fewer than 200 Illini remained, huddled in a few villages around Kaskaskia. Eventually they sold their land and moved to Indian territory. Their descendants belong to the Peoria tribe, now based on a small reservation near Miami, Oklahoma.

By 1926 the Illini had been gone from Illinois for over a hundred years. With no living models around, U. of I. football coach Bob Zuppke was free to romanticize them as avatars of the "complete human being--the strong, agile human body; the unfettered human intellect; the indomitable human spirit." Zuppke suggested Chief Illiniwek as a mascot. Ray Dvorak, the assistant band director, loved the idea, and asked a student to don a turkey-feather bonnet and hop around in a war dance during games.

The first Chief Illiniwek was Lester Leutwiler, a former Eagle Scout who based his performance on the "fancy dancing" that Indian tribes began performing for tourists in the 20s. The Chief made his debut at the 1926 Illinois-Pennsylvania football game, where he offered a peace pipe to the Penn Quaker, a mascot modeled after an even more pacifistic people.

The U. of I. history student who designed Chief Illiniwek's costume seems to have sensed that the Illini weren't the best models for a fierce Indian warrior. In 1929 A. Webber Borchers hitchhiked to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in search of martial halftime garb. Pine Ridge was the home of the Sioux, the genuinely warlike tribe that had killed General Custer and battled the U.S. Army until 1890, when they finally surrendered at Wounded Knee. Borchers, who later became a state representative from Decatur, paid a Sioux woman to make an outfit that included rawhide leggings, colorful beadwork, and an eagle-feather headdress.

Borchers "wanted the colorful regalia of the Sioux for several reasons, not the least of which was that the Indians of Illinois shaved the sides of their heads and he couldn't quite picture himself or any future Chief Illiniwek walking around campus for two or three years with only a scalplock on his head," says a report on Chief Illiniwek prepared for the University of Illinois board of trustees. "Also, the Illinois Indians were woodland Indians and did not wear the dramatic war bonnets of the plains Indians."

Since the Illini embarrass even their supporters, it's clear that they not only need a new mascot--they need a new nickname. With a moniker like the Fighting Illini, it's no wonder the football team went 1-11 last year.

Illinois' one unifying characteristic is the worship of Abraham Lincoln, so why not the Railsplitters, or the Fightin' Abes? We know how Lincoln dressed and how he danced. At halftime a tall student in a frock coat, stovepipe hat, and fake beard could run out onto the field and chase the opposition's mascot with an ax. Then Abe could drop the ax and whirl around the 50-yard line doing the reel with a woman in a bustle while the marching band played "Turkey in the Straw."

Lincoln, after all, won his war.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP--Wide World Photos.

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