top of page

Dance a While in His Moccasins

Chief Illinwekmascot, symbol, or insult? 

See Illinois (unpublished) 


Native Americans of the old Illinois nations, being dead, have been embraced by the non-Indians of east-central Illinois without fear or qualm. The people once feared or sneered at are now embraced as avatars of folk wisdom, ecological and otherwise. The chance to experience what they experienced is a regular part of the appeal made by managers of parks and other places associated with the Grand Prairie’s Indians. Visitors to the Humiston Woods Nature Center outside Pontiac are promised “the chance to walk in the footprints of Kickapoo Indians” (not, presumably, all the way to Oklahoma, to which place the Kickapoo were expelled). A private tree farm outside Rantoul gives visiting children a chance to play in “a realistic Indian tepee,” even though the Native Americans who peopled that part of the U.S. lived in long wigwams covered with reed mats.


Chief Black Hawk, or at least a romanticized version of him, has been embraced by northern Illinois as a symbol of that region. (See The Spirit of All Indians.) East-central Illinois has its Indian totem too, Chief Illiniwek, who is not merely romanticized but mostly imagined. 

This material is taken from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (See Publications for more about that project.) Some of it appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Hose Thieves.


Indians are to the Illinoisans of today what the leprechauns were to the Irish. Residents of the old Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois, for example, eagerly appropriate the likenesses of Native American braves and chiefs to decorate the paraphernalia of their sporting teams, even their professional associations. For years, the U of I Department of Agronomy used as its logo an Indian cartoon caricature purporting to represent Squanto, the Patuxet Indian who saved the Pilgrims from starvation at Plymouth Colony by showing them how to plant corn and where to hunt and fish, which made Squanto the patron saint, as it were, of the department. 


In appropriating the likenesses and native peoples, Euro-Americans do them somewhat less violence what some Indian peoples themselves did when their warriors ate the hearts of the bravest of their fallen foes. By this ceremonial appropriation of identity—by absorbing into their own bodies, in effect, the likeness, the names, the garb of their vanquished foe—non-Indians seek to share admired traits the Indian is presumed to possess.

The association of the legend and the department’s mission was apt but the symbol was deemed offensive and is no longer used. The university itself, however, retains its Indian nickname, the Fighting Illini, and vaguely Indian motifs recur through the school’s rituals and symbols. Among the U of I’s fight songs is “Oskee-Wow-Wow,” and the Illinois Loyalty contains the refrain, “Chehee, Cheha, Cheha-ha-ha/Go Illini Go”—an exhortation of uncertain meaning, whatever its power to excite business majors getting in touch with their inner warriors.


The problem, so often, is that the traits admired by whites are not always the traits that Indians possessed, but the ones Indians are imagined to have possessed. (Or to put it more precisely, those traits possessed by the Indians that whites have invented.) The complications caused by this dreamy anthropology can’t be better illustrated than by the career of the buckskin-clad Chief Illiniwek, which has performed a war dance at half-times of certain athletic contests of the University of Illinois’s Fighting Illini since 1926.


The popular ritual was intended from the start as entertainment. (The performance was dreamed up not by an anthropologist but an assistant band director.) The Chief was not derided as politically incorrect until the 1970s, but it was arguably anthropologically incorrect from the start. The Illini were a loose confederation of several Algonquinan tribes including the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, and Metchigamea, who were present in most parts of what is now Illinois when Europeans first arrived. The Illini were a people of the eastern forest, as were all their predecessors who traipsed this part of Illinois. The costume of Chief Illiniwek, however, is that of a Plains Indian. So is the hairdo; the student who devised the costume in the 1920s disdained the scalplock worn by the Illini as unfashionable. (Bobbed hair among the coeds was one thing, but . . . ) Nor did woodland Indians wear the war bonnets of the plains Indians that add such a theatrical touch to the performances. As for ethnographic authenticity, the dance itself was derived from the Native American style of dancing called "fancy dancing" or "fancy feather dancing," which originated as a method of entertaining visitors at reservations.  It is as authentic as the hoedown in “Oklahoma.”


As models for youthful endeavor, the real Illini left much to be desired. Donald Ross Peattie, by no means an unsympathetic observer, summarized historical opinion when he called the Illini an “affable, treacherous, libidinous people.” They delighted in torture when they managed to capture an outnumbered foe. They sold wives and daughters for trinkets. They were ruinously fond of gambling and drinking. This may make Chief Illiniwek an accurate (if not admirable) mascot for hard-partying undergrads, but not otherwise an apt choice even if its presumed racism is ignored.


The propriety of the Chief’s performances was raised as an issue in 1975. Those isolated complaints (mainly that it was demeaning) quickly become a chorus. The controversy inspired legislative resolutions, countless editorials, demonstrations, even a novel. (In his 1983 novel Indian Giver, Gerald Duff told the story of a teen-aged member of an east Texas Indian nation who was recruited by the Fighting Illini basketball program and naively believed he would be playing for an all-Indian team.) Anti-Chief activists entered a float in the 2000 homecoming parade titled "Epitaph for Chief Illiniwek."


Students, state lawmakers, national Native American organizations, all had their say over a period of years. Senior faculty have resolved against the Chief, as did dozens of university departments (all in the humanities), and dozens of campus organizations including the Student Government Association. The accrediting North Central Association in a recent evaluation praised the U of I’s "world-class" faculty and library collections" but devoted eight pages of its 35-page report to the controversy over the Chief, warning that it "interferes with the educational climate and with the institution's stated goal of creating an inclusive community."

Nonetheless, the board of trustees for years refused to abandon what most alums (especially most sports alums) plainly still regard affectionately as a totem of college experience. The dispute illustrates an enduring aspect of Indian-white relations, as most Native Americans judge the university’s gestures by their effects and most whites judge themselves by their intentions. Each camp is correct, but only as far as it sees the issue, which means that neither is.


In time the sneers moved the trustees to order the Chief, in effect, confined to a reservation. The Chief logo derived from the figure no longer appears on official university stationery. Beginning in 1989, appearances of the Chief were curtailed, so that by 2000 the Chief performed only at football games, men's basketball games, and women's volleyball games. In 2005, the NCAA banned the "hostile and abusive" Native American mascots of 18 colleges and universities from postseason tournament play, a decree that the university appealed and which the NCAA overruled; the decision means Illinois would not be allowed to host NCAA championship events unless it abandons the Chief.


Resisting to the last, the board of trustees in 2007 sent Chief Illiniwek to his well-earned rest. The final official performance took place at the last men's home basketball game of the season against Michigan. The Illini won, 54 to 42.




The university in 2007 might have banned the Chief from university events, but students and alumni have kept him alive. For years after, student Chiefs still performed, unofficially, at area sporting events, protesters still protested those appearances, and faculty and others still complained that the use of the Chief's image and the nickname "Fighting Illini" violate the spirit of the agreement to sideline the Chief. Thirteen years after his official demise, the school still has no other athletic team mascot, nor does it seem close to choosing one.


Elsewhere in Illinois, a more informed, or at least more sympathetic public, is adopting a more circumspect treatment toward their Native American predecessors. In a typical move, Sangamon County’s Ball-Chatham school board in 2001 decided that the high school athletes would no longer be known as Redskins and that the local junior high athletes would no longer be the Braves; village officials also pledged to eventually to paint over the head of an American Indian drawn onto the local water tower by a student in the 1980s.


More recently, bill have been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly that would require consultation with Native American groups before Indian mascots and team names could be used, even though such groups are themselves divided about whether such things are disrespectful. Such measures potentially would affect more than four dozen Illinois high schools alone.


Does a new era of wisdom beckon? Probably not. Indian school names are being abandoned as an accommodation to living Indians, not as an act of expiation by whites, who realize only dimly that many of these towns and schools stand on Indian land made available by acts of ethnic cleansing in the early 1800s. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page