I remember the first time I saw Chief Illiniwek. It was a Saturday afternoon on an overcast day in the early fall of 1967, my freshman year at the University of Illinois. I walked over to the season's first home football game from my residence hall, which was right across the street. I had no ticket to the game, but it was half time and the gates were open and unattended. So, I walked in, curious to absorb the spectacle.
I drifted around the stadium, inside it for the first time. There were television cameras. Lights were on. The band was marching. The stadium was no longer a huge abandoned building outside my dorm window. Today it was alive with the color, energy and noise of a capacity crowd.
I was surprised when the crowd suddenly stood up and the background sound of thousands of people talking at once gave way to an eerie quiet. I looked where they were all looking.
Chief Illiniwek had emerged to perform his spirited dance. I watched him, and I watched the faces of the people around me watching him. I didn't yet know much about college life or the University of Illinois. But I learned on that dreary day that a stadium full of people held Chief Illiniwek in a position of respect and honor. It felt good to be a part of a place like that.
A lot has changed since 1967. For one thing, there are new buildings between my old dorm window and the stadium. There is also something that has come between Chief Illiniwek and the University. Native Americans today think he is not an appropriate symbol. They feel the Chief is disrespectful to their heritage. The National College Athletic Association agrees and will punish my Alma mater if it doesn't change.
I haven't attended a home game at Urbana-Champaign in many years. I don't know if the crowd still treats Chief Illiniwek today the way it did when I first saw him. But, I know a tiger, a bear, or a red devil will have a hard time hushing a crowd during the frenzy that is a major college football game.
To me Chief Illiniwek is not a symbol of disrespect. He's a better symbol of honor and respect than we usually come across these days. But, it's all in your viewpoint. Respect and honor flow from the heart and are received by the heart.
In our culture today, we've lost our respect for each other in politics, religion, and even on our congested roads. We are collectively performing a modern dance of intolerance. In such lean times, the legend and stature of Chief Illiniwek will grow greater in his absence.
Perhaps on some distant day when tolerance is in fashion once again, we all will be able to recognize and accept the genuine respect people offer even if it's expression isn't the ideal way we'd like to receive it. The climate isn't ripe for that today, but climates change. In terms of tolerance, in some ways the climate was better in 1967.