Illinois Says Farewell to Chief Illiniwek Mascot The University of Illinois has decided to retire its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, after 80 years. Michele Norris talks with Steve Raquel, an alumnus who portrayed the character in 1992 and 1993.
NPR logo

Illinois Says Farewell to Chief Illiniwek Mascot

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Illinois Says Farewell to Chief Illiniwek Mascot

Illinois Says Farewell to Chief Illiniwek Mascot

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A decades-long fight over a Native American mascot ended today in Illinois. Facing sanctions from the NCAA, the University of Illinois announced that it will retire Chief Illiniwek. For 81 years, the chief has performed during basketball and football games. But coming this Wednesday, he will do his last halftime dance at the Illini's final home basketball game of the season in Champaign.


Those who have been citing for the chief's removal are celebrating today. They've called the mascot racist and offensive. But the chief's supporters argue that the chief honorably portrays Native Americans. Steve Raquel used to portray the chief himself during the early 1990s. He's now spokesman for a group of former chiefs, called the Council Of Chiefs.

Mr. STEVE RAQUEL (Spokesman, Council of Chiefs): It's a bittersweet day. Actually I'm a Champaign native and a proud one(ph). Today's decision, although it was probably expected, it's still sad to hear that Wednesday is the last performance.

NORRIS: So that's the bitter, what's the sweet?

Mr. RAQUEL: The sweet is that, you know, with every door that closes, there is always a new door that opens. And we have always been have had the long-term interest of the university in mind. And we are continuing our process of trying to help them figure out can this tradition move on in some ways, shape or form, even though, it has to close on Wednesday.

NORRIS: Now, I understand the e-mails are already flying among alumni. What's the likely reaction?

Mr. RAQUEL: There are passionate sides and there are alumni who I can say are the silent majority and who take great pride and excitement over this. I think in the short term, there will be a lot of emotion to it. Hopefully, over time, we can find something that allow the tradition to continue, and possibly, hopefully to satisfy that excitement that that happens at halftime of football and basketball game.

NORRIS: You know, we've talked about this as it served as a somber day for you. But there are a lot of people who are actually very happy about this. This is a victory for some who thought that the chief was offensive.

Mr. RAQUEL: Yeah. Of course that any passionate issues has two sides to it. And I know that they see it their way. And I know that they are probably rejoicing. To my mind, I feel that the removal of a tradition that's steeped in what we consider honorable and respectful origins, only further removes an appreciation of the American culture.

NORRIS: Steve, could you tell me a little bit more about Chief Illiniwek. Could you give us a quick description of his costume and his routine.

Mr. RAQUEL: Oh, boy, I will try. They have worn authentic fox skin outfits, with a headdress that is currently made of turkey feathers; breastplates, a choker, gloves, and like a pair of chaps. And what Chief Illiniwek does is, at only at halftimes of football and basketball games, in the myth(ph) of what we call the three-in-one, which is what we call the stirring three minutes in all of college sports in where Chief Illiniwek comes in and the band had done to one end of the, the football field.

And Chief Illiniwek bursts out like a bird and performs a fancy dance - a very celebratory dance down the field that includes arm movements, leg kicks, and eagle spread kicks. And for that three minutes, just excites the crowd in a passionate, exciting way. He solemnly finishes it up, walks off the field, and he's not seen until the next performance.

NORRIS: By just describing that, it sounds like it took you back.

Mr. RAQUEL: It did. It's one of those things where anytime I see it, I see myself in the outfit, and I see the expressions of people who are watching. And I, you know, I get the goosebumps that I think each one of us, each former chief gets knowing the emotion, and that the excitement of what tradition brings.

NORRIS: Steve, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. RAQUEL: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Steve Raquel is an alumnus from the University of Illinois. He portrayed Chief Illiniwek in 1992 and in 1993.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.