Last update: February 20, 2007 – 9:12 PM
Nick Coleman: Illinois shows North Dakota what is the truly honorable thing
Goodbye, Chief Illiniwek, and good riddance. Next up, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.

By Nick Coleman, Star Tribune

Chief Illiniwek gets the ax tonight. The Fighting Sioux nickname should be next.
Sometimes, despite everything, there is progress.
For 80 years, "Chief Illiniwek" has been what fans of the University of Illinois have called the barefoot white boys who have sported buckskin and feathers and aped American Indian dances during football and basketball games. The Chief is a throwback to the days when a conquering culture thought it could spoof racial stereotypes and "honor" people by making them into tumblers and clowns.
But after tonight, the Chief will be history.
In retiring him, Illinois will have succumbed to rulings from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
More importantly, Illinois will have bowed to common decency: You can't "honor" people by offending them.
Chief Illiniwek makes his last dance when the Illinois men's basketball team hosts Michigan. The end of the road for this symbol of -- what, exactly? White boy nimbleness? -- has not brought out the best in the students and alumni of Illinois. But it has proved that the NCAA is on the right track.
"If They Get Rid of the Chief I'm Becoming a Racist" was the name of an online site joined by more than 100 students, whose vile posts about Indians showed they didn't need to worry about becoming racists.
They are well on the way.
Still, the disappearance of an obnoxious minstrel act will be good for Illinois, and it may be good for North Dakota, too.
With each cleansing of a racial caricature from the sports scene, the pressure mounts on the "Fighting Sioux" logo and name of the University of North Dakota, which finds itself in a small rump group of nickname offenders.
At this point, the arguments North Dakota puts forward for keeping the name aren't the issue. The question is what kind of university wants to put its name and reputation through the wringer in defense of "honoring" a tribe whose representatives have said time and time again -- despite bogus claims by those who deny it -- that they don't consider it an honor to be reduced to a nickname.
Last fall, using alumni donations that would be better spent in the classroom, UND took the NCAA to court, challenging the group's finding that the "Fighting Sioux" logo and nickname are "hostile and abusive." Since many of the Sioux tribes in the Dakotas have come to the same conclusion, it would have been civil to bow to the NCAA ruling.
Forget civility. When North Dakota honors Indians, they better stay "honored." The only good Indian is an honored Indian. What a waste of time and money by a university that remains in the thrall of dead casino operator and Nazi memorabilia collector Ralph Engelstad, who gave UND $100 million to build the Taj Mahal of hockey arenas and festooned it with thousands of Fighting Sioux logos so it would be easier to tear down than to remove them all.
Hmmm. Not a bad idea.
Each time I write about this issue (I haven't since June), I am accused of knowing nothing about it.
Permit me: I have reported on racist nicknames and Indian issues for 20 years and wrote a lengthy magazine piece on the Fighting Sioux problem in 2001 that delved into the "Nazi memorabilia collector" (yes, I love to say that) part of Engelstad's past. You can find a copy online at: Be sure to read about the matching life-size portraits of Hitler and Engelstad -- both in Nazi uniforms -- that Engelstad put on the walls at his secret Hitler birthday parties as a "joke."
You'll laugh yourself sick.
The university's misguided lawsuit goes to court in December. Even if it succeeds at overturning NCAA procedures, the NCAA says it simply will change its procedures and continue to enforce its eminently sensible and important conclusion:
The Fighting Sioux name and logo, like Chief Illiniwek, are relics of the past.
Not the honored past.
The shameful past.

Nick Coleman •
©2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.