During my years at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign as an undergraduate student, the student body became embroiled in a heated debate about the continued viability of our team’s mascot. Our mascot was the “Fighting Illini,” which was portrayed by a student that dressed up as American Indian “Chief Illiniwek.” Chief Illiniwek is a fictional character and not based on any actual American Indian chief. Chief Illiniwek and the accompanying logo are trademarks of the University of Illinois.
Supporters of the mascot argued that it represented a long, continued tradition of the school (the mascot had been around since 1926) and that it celebrated the Native American heritage of Illinois. Opponents argued that it was offensive and culturally insensitive. Mounting pressure from opponents and sanctions by the NCAA, which had considered the mascot an “offensive use of American Indian imagery,” led the University to abandon the mascot in 2007.
Chief Illiniwek Mascot
Professional athletic teams are no stranger to this controversy. The Washington Redskins mascot has been under fire for many years as well, for many of the same reasons that the Illinois mascot was. Recently, members from the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of the term “Redskins” from being trademarked. Del. Eni Faleomavaega from American Samoa authored the Non-Disparagement of American Indians in Trademark Registrations Act of 2013, which would cancel existing trademarks referencing “Redskins” and prohibit future use of the term as well. While there is no certainty that the bill will move forward, its introduction comes at a time when the controversy is fresh. Earlier this month, a 3-judge panel in Alexandria heard arguments about whether the term was a slur and thus should not be protected by trademark.
The future of Native American mascots is uncertain. What is clear is that we will likely continue to see these issued debated and litigated in the coming years.