It's a debate that's embroiled this university since I've arrived, and apparently much longer before that.  Today the UIUC Board of Trustees elected not to vote on a resolution proposing the "honorable retirement" of Chief Illiniwek as the mascot of the University of Illinois, a decision which set aflame the built-up emotions of both sides of the debate, and among other things, drove our Chancellor to tears (

One of the main groups demanding the removal of the chief is the PRC (  A popular slogan of the PRC is "Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize" and they call the chief a "racist representation of Native people created by non-Natives for the halftime entertainment and profit of non-Native people."

Those who support the chief argue that the demonstrations, halftime shows, etc. are "honorable" to the native American people, and the costume is authentic, etc. besides poining out that many alumni donors have stated they will cease to financially support the university if the chief is removed.

Unfortunately both sides of the debate are terribly confused, for no other reason than they fail to recognize the chief for what it actually is, namely, a symbol, nothing more.  As such, it has no inherent meaning, makes no implicit value judgements, and carries no pre-conceived notions about race, or anything else.  Rather, any ideas about what the chief represents and symbolizes are determined by people.  And in typical "progressive" fashion, the PRC members who decry the chief as a racist mascot are, in fact, themselves the racists, for that is the meaning they have assigned to the symbol; to them, it represents rich white men making fun of Indians and their culture.  But the symbolism the chief has for all those alumni and supporters bears no connection to race.  To them, the chief represents good times with friends on a Saturday afternoon.  It conjures up memories of their departed college years, which some people assert are the best times in a person's life.  Its meaning is very personal, and it would be a ridiculous assertion to claim that the vast majority of the chief supporters establish any mental link between Chief Illiniwek and real native Americans or their culture.

Right now, this university and its students, faculty, and administration have far more important matters to deal with (where do I begin?... budget crisis, decrepit facilities, and poor administration of too many courses, just to name a few).  Both sides need to realize the chief is only an innocent symbol, and the only racist connotations it carries are those created by the self-fulfilling prophecies of calling it a racist mascot.  It's time to rein in this all-too-common example of multiculturalism gone amuck.