Ivan Dozier is the longest-serving Chief at the University of Illinois since the symbol emerged in 1926.
While the university no longer recognizes the Chief as a symbol, Dozier continues to uphold the tradition. Dozier is half Cherokee on his father’s side. Of the 38 students who have portrayed the former symbol, he is the second Chief of Native American descent.
According to Dozier, the eradication of Illinois’ symbol was a long and controversial ordeal. The NCAA ruled that if a university has a Native American symbol, the school must have permission from the respective tribe to use the symbol. “The tricky thing about the University of Illinois, is that we call ourselves the Illini, after the 13 tribes of the Illiniwek Confederation,” Dozier said. “Since there wasn’t one particular Illini tribe, Chief Illiniwek was never actually a real person.”
For many years, Illinwek tribes were consolidated with other tribes or nonexistent. In the 70s, one of the tribes of the confederation resurfaced: the Peoria. While they initially did not want become involved in the controversy, the Peoria eventually made the decision that they did not support the Chief as U of I’s symbol.
“However, the NCAA ruling states we could, technically, still have the Chief. But, as a result, we could not have postseason tournaments,” Dozier said. “Since U of I has many teams who do very well in postseason tournaments, keeping the Chief would not be fair to those respective athletes.”
What many people don’t know is that the Chief’s dance is not an authentic Native American ritual. It was actually created in 1926 by Eagle Scout, Lester Leutwiler. He performed it at Memorial Stadium for the first time on Oct. 30, 1926 and it became an instant hit with Fighting Illini fans.
“A lot of Native American dances were done as a form of prayer,” Dozier said. “So it wouldn’t be fitting to use an authentic ritual outside of its original purpose.”
The Chief’s regalia -- headdress and clothing -- are not of authentic Illiniwek heritage. It is actually Sioux regalia, representing Great Plains Native Americans. “It isn’t about authenticity, though; it’s about keeping the culture alive and to keep people asking questions about it,” Dozier said. “Fewer and fewer people know about Native Americans’ history in Illinois.”
Along with two former Chief portrayers, Dozier will help select the next Chief. The tryout process is open to any student at U of I, regardless of heritage or experience. Becoming the Chief isn’t solely about performing the dance, but knowing the culture behind the tradition. Dozier says the portrayer needs to be able to answer questions about the culture, intelligently and accurately.
Being of Native American descent, Dozier said he has never felt offended by the portrayal of the Chief. He believes that if people were trying to make a parody of the culture, they would jeer or laugh at the Chief during his dance. When he went to football games as a kid, everyone always cheered excitedly for the Chief to perform at halftime. He lifted fan morale, regardless of whether the team was winning or losing.
“Intention is important when it comes to how the symbol is used,” he said. “As long as people look at the Chief with honor and respect, I believe we are in the right place.”
Although he cannot perform the dance on the fields, Dozier
will make appearances in full Chief regalia at several home athletic events
this year. He says he tries to make appearances at games where he believes many
people will be there to support him. In fact, that’s why he chose to appear at
the Dad’s Day football game, last year.
Dozier fully supports the symbol’s official return. Students for the Chief and other Registered Student Organizations work to bring back the symbol.
"There is an enormous outcry from the student body and from alumni for his return," Dozier said. "The Chief is a very powerful symbol for student unity.”