Chief Illiniwek may be gone, but images depicting the controversial University of Illinois mascot will stick around at least during homecoming.
A day before Friday’s homecoming parade, university officials overturned a ban on any likeness of Illiniwek, an American Indian in a feathered headdress, in floats. The decision allows pictures to be used.
Chancellor Richard Herman consulted with attorneys and other university officials last week and decided the policy for homecoming restricted free speech.
“It’s a freedom of speech, freedom of expression issue,” university spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Sunday. “The university places great value on those two things.”
Illiniwek’s image appeared on several floats at the rainy Friday night parade. No protesters showed up.
In February, the university retired the mascot, which led the NCAA to lift sanctions that had barred Illinois from hosting postseason sports since 2005.
Those in favor say the mascot, portrayed by a buckskin-clad student at sporting events, honors both American Indians and Illini sports. But opponents say the chief and his dance are demeaning and racist.
It was unclear whether the university’s ruling on homecoming floats would have any weight on the NCAA’s decision to lift the sanctions. A message left Sunday for NCAA officials was not immediately returned.
Supporters of the mascot were happy with the decision.
Howard Wakeland, a member of the Honor the Chief Society, came to homecoming as he does every year wearing a shirt depicting Illiniwek.
“They made a grave error and were smart enough to call it off at the last minute,” the 80-year-old said Sunday of university officials. “There is a very deep strong, feeling for the chief.”
The chief first made an appearance in 1926 when a student in a homemade American Indian costume danced at an Illini football game.
Illiniwek merchandise, which generates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the university, is gradually being fazed out. In June, university officials told manufacturers to stop production of the retired mascot’s image.
The university will continue using the “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” names.
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