Chief Illiniwek's last show will be tonight vs. Michigan

Updated: February 21, 2007, 3:32 PM ET
Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After 81 years of war paint and feathered headdresses, the University of Illinois' controversial American Indian mascot is performing his final show.

After that, Chief Illiniwek's image and regalia will continue to be a subject of negotiations.

The mascot, whose fate was decided by school officials last week, will take center stage at Assembly Hall for one last performance Wednesday night during the men's basketball game between Illinois and Michigan.

Removing the chief frees the university of NCAA sanctions after the organization deemed Illiniwek -- portrayed by buckskin-clad students who dance at home football and basketball games and other athletic events -- an offensive use of American Indian imagery and barred the school from hosting postseason athletic events.

The sanctions, which were issued in 2005, will end after Wednesday night's appearance.

"We knew we were going to have to do something to get off the list," chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees Lawrence Eppley said after the decision was announced.

Still, the students who currently portray the chief and their predecessors want the chief's image and the mascot's related history to be celebrated by the university, perhaps in a museum.

And merchandise containing images of the chief continues to be made by suppliers and sold by vendors at Assembly Hall and sporting goods stores. No deadline has been set to stop making Illiniwek paraphernalia, which the university is paid for the rights to use.

The chief, who debuted in a homemade American Indian costume during an Illini football game in 1926, has been a controversial subject for decades.

Supporters see the dancing mascot and his elaborate costume as an honored symbol of both American Indian tradition and Illini sports. Detractors, including some American Indians and university academics, say the chief and his dance are racist and insulting.

Under the plan announced last week, the university still will be able to use the name Illini because it's short for Illinois, and the school can use the term Fighting Illini, because it's considered a reference to the team's competitive spirit, school officials said.

Neither of those ideas sit well with the activists who opposed the chief. They say they next want the university to end the use of the names.

Graduate student Dan Maloney, who dons the costume at men's basketball and football games, was to portray the chief for the final dance Wednesday.

Maloney, along with assistant chief Logan Ponce, a sophomore, even launched legal action to keep the mascot out of retirement, but a judge rejected their request.

Last Friday's decision by the school meant that Ponce had already appeared as the chief for the last time.

"My last performance, my parents were here for that," he said. "If it was my last, I was happy with it."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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