One of the greatest ceremonies of my youth was going to Memorial stadium in Champaign, IL on Saturdays, not to see football (the team was terrible and didn’t start winning until Jim Grabowski and Dick Butkus showed up a few years later) but to see Chief Illiniwek. The Chief had first appeared at a football game against Penn State, Oct. 30, 1926, standing next to the Penn State mascot, ‘William Penn.’
This was not some corny, disrespectful culture rip-off. The tribe who inspired the name of our state resided in Oklahoma, and they had been contacted and given permission. A native company in South Dakota produced the costume.
I remember talking to my dad and him saying, “the first time I saw the Chief perform, I broke out in tears.” That was many people’s reaction because the ceremony touched some very deep spiritual nerves.
In the late sixties, a campaign to kill the Chief was launched and eventually succeeded. The campaign got national attention and was pushed by AIM, although much more corny (Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins) remained untouched (though the last two got new names last year).
Many years ago, I spent a few days hanging with Alex Whiteplume and he’d asked where I’d gone to college, and when I said University of Illinois, he replied: “The Chief.” Alex didn’t know anything about the history. He had backed the anti-Chief campaign, and had applauded his demise. The biggest problem was wearing the headdress.
The Chief was never a “mascot.” He did not stand on the sidelines and cheer. He never sang nor spoke nor showed the slightest interest in the game. He only appeared for a few minutes at every home game perform a solemn ceremony, something he always did with great dignity.
After performing the halftime show, the band would march to the north endzone, with the snare drummers keeping the beat and the band singing “Pride of the Illini” by Karl King.
“We are marching for dear old Illini. For the men who are fighting for you. Here’s a cheer for our dear Alma Mater. May our love for her ever be true! While we’re marching along life’s pathway. May the spirit of old Illinois. Keep us marching and singing, with true Illini spirit, for our dear old Illinois.”
The band crowded into a mass inside the endzone, and the Chief slipped into that mass and disappeared. Suddenly, the band did an about face and marched towards the opposite endzone while forming the letters “I-L-L-I-N-I” and playing “March of the Illini,”. At a crescendo moment in the song, the Chief burst into view, arms and legs pumping, whirling and twirling across the field and eventually ending with his signature air split at the far endzone as the song ended.
He then crossed his arms and walked resolutely back to mid-field, where he stood like a statue with open arms in a benediction while the entire stadium sang “Hail to the Orange” with great fervor, swaying with arms across each other’s shoulders.
“Hail to the Orange, Hail to the Blue, Hail Alma Mater, Ever so true (so true). We love no other, so let our motto be, vic-tor-y, Il-li-nois, Var-si-ty.”
He concluded with a reprise of his dance. I can’t remember if he ended that with another signature air split, but both dances picked up tempo and volume as they went on. Every three or four years a new move could be added by the new Chief, sometimes the new move resembling something John Travalota might have done in Saturday Night Fever.
The three-in-one was always introduced as “the most exciting four minutes in college athletics.” It was one of the most powerful ceremonies I ever experienced.
After the Chief was banned, the band continued to perform the three-in-one. But it was completely flat and meaningless without the Chief. I started a campaign online to bring the Chief back in the form of Chef Ra dressed in a Jamaican-style outfit, but got no traction.
We will need a marching band to perform at the softball tournament at Camp Fun over the Summer Solstice in Bethel, NY. You don’t even need musical ability, just bring a kazoo or a percussion instrument. It’s my dream to re-enact the three-in-one with new lyrics and without native references. And I need a dred to play the Chief part.
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