What follows is a letter written by a friend to the UIUC administration regarding Chief Illiniwek. With her permission, I have shared this letter here to help amplify her voice. TW for suicidal ideation and gun violence.
To: Chancellor Wise, the Board of Trustees, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and all Native American, Indigenous, First Nations and Aboriginal People
April 3, 2014
My name is Xochitl Sandoval, I am an indigenous student here at UIUC. I write this to you as a condensed statement and explanation of my experience as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I hope it finds you in a good way and is met with a receptive spirit. What I write to you is very personal and very sacred because it is about my life, and the legacy of disrespect and racism towards myself and the indigenous people who lived on this land and who continue to bear the unbelievable burden of having to fight for respect. This letter is not only for you, but it is also a statement that I intend on circulating to as many places and people as possible, so if some parts are written in a way that is not meant directly for you, it is because they are for the larger audience.
On March 11, I had the thought that I should commit suicide. On March 11, 2014, I specifically thought “blow your brains out on the quad.” My process was as follows: Write a letter to Mr. Jamie and explain that this whole Chief situation was so unbearable, and the apathy on behalf of Administration so painful, that it was obvious that nothing was going to change. Maybe suicide was the way. I would then purchase a gun, load it, go onto the quad, stand facing Union, bring the gun up to my temple, and pull the trigger.
Maybe by committing suicide, you, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the Board of Trustees, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Administration will realize that no, I am not exaggerating about the emotional, physical and spiritual pain that seeing the former-yet-still-lingering Chief mascot has on me.
On March 3, 2014, I wrote an email to my Spanish professor expressing my concerns as a student in her class. One student had been wearing sweatshirts with the name ‘Chief’ on them, and a second came with a sweater that had the image on it. In this email I articulated to her that as a student, I had rights that had been outlined by the University that ensured every student would have “freedom to learn, free and open expression with limits that do not interfere with the rights of others, respect for the dignity of others, and personal and institutional openness to constructive change.” I explained to her that as an indigenous student, this image and every likeness to it represented a complete disregard for American Indian culture and spiritual practices, and that every time I saw it, it was not only an emotional stab, but also an impediment to my academic success. In the student handbook in Section 1-302 Rules of Conduct, number 5 states that “engaging in behavior which is so persistent, pervasive, or severe as to deny a person’s ability to participate in the University community” is grounds for discipline, which every likeness to the Chief is to me. Additionally, the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access outlines in Campus Climate Section 2 “Hostile Environments” states that a hostile environment, which is prohibited by university policy, consists of, but is not limited to “unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or academic performance, by creating an objectively intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or learning environment” which the image and the people who continue to use the image have created for me.
Upon emailing this letter to her, I went to see the Dean of Students to create a formal complaint. The Dean referred me to the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access to meet with an attorney to further discuss this situation. I met with the attorney on March 11, after which, while walking across the quad on my way to the Native American House, I watched myself purchase a gun and commit suicide on the quad.
The attorney told me that the only two options that were available to me were to either mediate a conversation with the students who were using the Chief name and logo, or to give a presentation to my class without mentioning my complaint about how this mascot was offensive to some American Indian people. To the first, I was appalled. I did not understand the logic in having to confront the people who were the ones hurting me, and so I said no. To the second, I stated that if she had a responsibility to take action, to go ahead, but for me it would not be a solution. A presentation is something I can, and have done. I was not, and am not, looking to settle for a band-aid solution to this problem that has caused such an immense psychological damage to not only myself, but countless others.
I, along with countless others, have had to endure the unbelievable and unjust burden of educating a racist image so deeply imbedded in the psyche of this Campus.
As I look through the Campus Spirit Revival facebook page, I feel the nauseating anger take hold of me again. People such as Bryce Dirks attacked us in such ignorant, hateful and hostile ways that now I remember why I do not feel part of this campus. I remember now why I am not going to commencement. I am reminded again that I am defenseless, because the people who have the legal obligation to protect me as a student are turning their backs and allowing these people to degrade us over and over again. I am reminded why I do not feel safe on campus. I am reminded that I regret having come to this University and that I would not encourage any minority student to come to this Campus. Granted, there were many professors and TAs who were very encouraging and supportive during this time. There was also the Native American House which from the beginning was my place of refuge. However, a place of refuge is not enough. I knew that there was somewhere I could run to, but that eventually I would need to leave that place and confront the massive student body that continue to display Chief hats, pins, shirts, sweaters, stickers, and etc.
I am going to backtrack a little in order to discuss Campus Spirit Revival. CSR, as you surely must have heard of, is a student organization which was founded by Tom and which I became the President of when he graduated. It was created in order to find a new symbol for the University, being that since the Chief was retired, we do not have one. A contest was held for students to submit their ideas, but this proved to be a difficult process since pro-Chief people became very aggressive towards us, stating that they wanted a ‘no change’ option which ultimately led to the results being withheld in moot court.
Given that it seemed as if students did not yet understand why the Chief had been retired in the first place, and did not seem open to dialogue through facebook, CSR decided to collaborate with the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization to host a forum called ‘Tradition or Transition: A Forum on Chief Illiniwek’ on April 16, 2013. We attempted to contact the Honor the Chief Society, Students for Chief Illiniwek, Stop Campus Spirit Revival in order to work with them. Our thought was that facebook discussions were turning very negative and no real progress was being made, additionally, being online made things very impersonal so perhaps face to face dialogue would be better. We contacted Honor the Chief Society, Students for Chief Illiniwek, and Stop Campus Spirit Revival members, none of whom wanted to collaborate with us.
Josh Good, a graduate of UIUC and an administrator of the SCSR facebook page, after my repeatedly telling him that we wanted to work together to format this event as was best possible, told me that he was not interested in a “massive circus” or public debate although debate had already been raging online. He also said that with 1,900 people, it is hard to control the extremists. Well, here the University could have stepped up in defense of we the students who were being attacked.
Through our CSR facebook page, people such as Eric Arno Hiller called us traitors to the University as well as tyrants, Timothy Thilmony called us uninformed people who were just looking for a cause, John Tuttle called our organization an “embarrassing display of buffoonery at the UI,” Ben Cheslow Kraatz said we were “popularity-seeking, incredibly unintelligent people.” I along with others, withstood all of this without any support from the University. More recently, I was told I was acting like a “personally wounded party, and like a child” and that my militant attitude towards the Chief issue was not the way to address this issue, and that pro-Chief people needed time to heal, again discrediting my emotions in a way that I have unfortunately become all too familiar with through interactions with the University.
The forum itself was interesting to say the least. Ivan Dozier Jr., the “chief himself” did show up. He did not help create the event, he never replied to my message, and he did not let CSR know ahead of time he would be there. The only reason we knew to expect him was through a friend.
Another CSR member and I presented powerpoints we had created for the event, after which we opened up the dialogue. He presented himself as the person who does the unofficial chief portrayal, a member of the Native American House, the President of Students for Chief Illiniwek, and the student liaison of the Honor the Chief Society, although he did not come representing any of those groups and I, in two years, have never seen him at the Native American House.
Dozier stated that the dance and regalia were not authentic, and that he found solace in that. I’m not sure if all of the Chief supporters are aware of that, but thankfully, at least he is. He stated the psychology study on the effects of Native mascots on people was wrong. He stated that it is not possible to find something that offends no one, and told us this heartfelt story of his childhood:
“When I was little I had a harrowing experience with animal crackers because I couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be eaten or not, and I couldn’t eat animal crackers, but we can’t ban animal crackers because of that”
Last I checked, I’m not an animal cracker. And people in general aren’t animal crackers. To compare the two is faulty logic.
His position, as is the erroneous one of many others, remained that the image could be used to educate, since it was already there. He also said that we should work with the pro-Chief people, because they were the ones offended and they were not going to let go of their mascot easily and that because the tradition was embedded strongly, people might even turn to some “good ole vigilante justice.” This is the kind of student who you protect, and the student who, in your recent sell out with the Honor the Chief Society, will be able to continue performing in regalia.
The event ended and everyone went their separate ways. Again, it was clear that the pro-Chief side has no real goal besides bringing the Chief back. Dozier claims to want educational efforts to happen, but I have never seen him at the Native American House for any event, nor have I seen the pro-Chief side, with its thousands of supporters, hold an event to honor native people. The closest I have seen have either been hosted by the Native American House, the Native American and Indigenous Student Organization, and the Archeology Student Society. NAISO and the Archeology Student Society, in fact, held an amazing event called IndiVisible, at which I did not see “Native-loving” Chief supporters at.
And so this is my condensed testament about my experience at the University of Illinois. These are the kinds of students who are on your campus, and this is the situation you have neglected and even encouraged through your settlement. I leave thoroughly disappointed with you, Chancellor Wise, the Board of Trustees, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for having done nothing to address this horrendous issue, none of which achieved their mission to support and most importantly, protect, minority students on campus. I may not matter, because I am not one of the wealthy alumni who can threaten this institution by withholding my funds, but I have a voice. And I will be now, and forever, an alumni who will make sure that other students are aware that the racism and culture of silence and apathy is so fully embedded into this place that it is truly dangerous to be a student here.
If you want to do something, I suggest you enforce the wonderful language you use in your statements and handbooks. I suggest that you start with the classroom environment, and demand that students and professors act in accordance to the rules set by the University and refrain from wearing any and all items which may include the word “Chief”, that may contain the image of the former mascot and any likeness to it, which includes but is not limited to, sweaters, shirts, jerseys, buttons and stickers, which are triggering and which interfere with not only the quality of education but also the emotional well-being of students. Of course, you will find yourself attacked if you do this because the pro-Chief side does not want to change. But change is necessary and overdue.
I hope that you take it upon yourself to act. Until then, I will work hard to reach American Indian and Indigenous people to stay far from this University, to look elsewhere for their education, because this University does not have the capacity to create a safe environment for them, and I would not want them to feel as I have. There are far better institutions for them than yours.
Update 3/4/14 9:00 am: Xochi has posted the following message on her Facebook, which I thought would be important to add here:
“Hey community. Just wanted to let ya’ll know that emotionally Im doing well, no more nasty thoughts
With that, I feel that the University might turn this into a “xochitl’s emotions” issue as a tactic to not talk about the Chief.
Lets remember that this is not a suicide issue, this is a #BanTheChief issue.”