History Lesson

May 16, 2018

I recorded a podcast this week with an Ohio State site - they're previewing the other 13 Big Ten teams this summer and started with Illinois - and one of their questions was if I thought we'd ever change the name "Fighting Illini". It's a pet topic for me, so I gave them my usual rant/history lesson. And I figured that it's been a while since I wrote about it here, so it wouldn't hurt to revisit the topic. Don't worry - this isn't a Chief rant. I simply believe that it's important for everyone to understand where the word "Illini" came from. And why the decision was made to keep it.

I wrote about this a little bit last summer when it was announced that the "war chant" was retired. Would the name be next? Would we go the way of the Fighting Sioux in North Dakota (who became the Fighting Hawks)? I really don't think so. Because "Illini", despite what everyone thinks, isn't/wasn't a Native American tribe. Let's start with a snippet from that article and then go from there.

Since that time, we've been in this weird phase with Fighting Illini where it's half Native American imagery, half military imagery. I'm not a historian, but I'll attempt to play one in this article.

It's true that the term "Fighting Illini" comes from World War I. Post-WWI, to be specific. The first references to the term all center around the effort to build Memorial Stadium in the early 1920's as a memorial to those who lost their lives in World War I. The rallying cry: "build that stadium for fighting Illini", meaning Illinois men and women who had died in World War I. There was even a song at the time - Fight, Illini - which rallied students and alumni to build a stadium to honor our "fighting men" from the war.

Why "Illini"? It's complicated. The state of Illinois was named after the French word for the native people in the area (the Illiniwek, a Peoria Indian term), but the term "Illini" was never used. This is important. Most people think that the term "Illini" comes from an "Illini tribe" of Native American people who once lived in the area, but that's not really the case. As the article linked above states, the term "Illiniwek" or "Iliniwok" was used to describe several tribes in the region who spoke similar languages, but by the early 1800's all had consolidated into the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes. There never really was an "Illini tribe", at least not using that word.

(It's important to note that the links above and the links below all come from this page, a "Fighting Illini FAQ" maintained by the University on the archives/library website. This is not my collection of links - this is a collection that the University put together to explain the origins of "Fighting Illini".)

So if there was never an Illini tribe, where did the name come from? Well, it came directly from the student newspaper in 1874. 1874 as in eight years after the University was founded. 1874 as in back when the University of Illinois was named Illinois Industrial University (go IIU!). The student newspaper was known as The Student, and they felt that they needed a new name. In this editorial, they invented the word "Illini":

We see no good reason why we, with the pecuniary assistance of friends outside, may not make a magazine of which not only the I.I.U. will be proud, but of which the State may justly boast. There is talent sufficient, and all that it requires is proper exertion. Then let the new editors have your best thoughts, in your best style, whether you are Regent, Professor, or high private in the ranks, whether recruit or veteran. And now we will add, whether connected with the paper in the future or not, we shall always be interested in its welfare, and will strive with our humble ability to make "The Illini" the worthy exponent of the though and principles of the Illinois Industrial University.


All young people are fond of an anniversary of a birthday, and we have as good a right to rejoice as any one over this happy new year which adds another count to our age; but when the birthday finds us in unexpected possession of a clean, bright face, and splendid new clothes, and money in our pockets, and double our former number of friends and well-wishers, and all the prospects for the future bright and enchanting, why, what should we do, and what can we do but be merry and make merry with ourselves and with everybody else! And then, like a rosy-cheeked bride, we are all aglow over our new name. Had you noticed it? Did you ever see it before? Do you know what it means and where it comes from? Sound it "trippingly on the tongue." Accent the second syllable and pronounce with us, Il-li-ni. Good! Try, try again until it fits the tongue as well as Illinois, simply a Frenchman's modification of the same word.

As the FAQ page goes on to state, "during the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, (Illini) was often used to refer to the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University, as well as to the campus as a whole". The newspaper was The Illini (and later, The Daily Illini), and there were no athletic teams yet, so Illini was simply a regional term. I've always compared it to "Sooner" for Oklahomans and "Hoosier" in Indiana - a regional term, sometimes with confusing origins, used to describe the students, faculty, and alumni.

When athletic teams came along decades later, "Illini" was the term chosen for the teams (again, much like Sooners and Hoosiers). And it was at this time that the Native American imagery was attached. As noted above (in the snippet from my War Chant post), "Fighting Illini" came from the Memorial Stadium campaign and the desire to honor the WWI "fighting" "Illini". But it was also at this time that the Native American imagery was added (and eventually the Chief), so, "Fighting Illini" became synonymous with "Fighting Sioux" and the like. There is no question that for the next 80 years, "Fighting Illini" changed to mean "Fighting Indians" in nearly everyone's interpretation. That's not where the term began, and there were 47 years of a student newspaper named The Daily Illini without any reference to Native American imagery, but the advent of athletics led to the introduction of Native American imagery.

The first big step away from that came in 2007 with the retirement of Chief Illiniwek. Another step came last summer with the elimination of the War Chant. Is the name next? I do not believe so. The timeline, as I see it.

Early 1870's to early 1920's - "Illini" is used to describe the students, faculty, and alumni of the University of Illinois
1921 - A stadium campaign to build a memorial stadium for students and alumni who lost their lives in WWI leads to the term "Fighting Illini"
Mid-1920's to mid-2000's - "Fighting Illini" and Chief Illiniwek become the symbol for the UIUC athletic teams.
2007 - Chief Illiniwek is retired, removing the most prominent piece Native American imagery
2017 - War Chant is retired, removing the last piece of Native American imagery

2018-on? It will likely take several generations, but I believe the term "Fighting Illini" will slowly return to its origins. By the time your granddaughter graduates from UIUC, I believe it will once again be similar to Sooner or Hoosier. The Daily Illini? The daily happenings of the students, faculty, and alumni of the University of Illinois. 50 years of a stand-alone term, 80 years of Native American imagery, and now, in the future, 100+ years of a stand-alone term again.

Also by the time your granddaughter graduates - another NCAA Tournament appearance! GO IIU!


Sweetchuck13 on May 16 @ 02:14 PM CDT

A bit lengthy, but this is one heck of a sentence:

All young people are fond of an anniversary of a birthday, and we have as good a right to rejoice as any one over this happy new year which adds another count to our age; but when the birthday finds us in unexpected possession of a clean, bright face, and splendid new clothes, and money in our pockets, and double our former number of friends and well-wishers, and all the prospects for the future bright and enchanting, why, what should we do, and what can we do but be merry and make merry with ourselves and with everybody else!

You don't see writing like that anymore.

Good history lesson Robert. I feel like I knew most of the story about the WWI connection, but didn't know the newspaper end of it that came decades earlier.

Illinimac68 on May 16 @ 03:09 PM CDT

Those who dislike all things Illini really don't care about history but thanks, Robert.

illiniranger on May 16 @ 03:36 PM CDT

this article is a great example of why this is clearly the best Illini sports site.

Joe Edge on May 16 @ 03:56 PM CDT

Sooooo . . . When is the podcast coming out ? Since they listed us first, I'm assuming they think we'll be 'last' in the B1G ?

illiniranger on May 16 @ 04:03 PM CDT

alphabetical maybe?

Joe Edge on May 17 @ 01:34 PM CDT

Can it be shown that people in Ohio KNOW the alphabet? or if they do, that they don't believe it starts with 'O' ? ? ? Usually, these sports things that are predicting a ranking start with the one predicted to be lowest, and move to the highest....

Back in the day of the big 2 and the little 8, I was of the opinion that those big 2 should be moved into the pro ranks, or at least into a 'semi-pro' status. That way the rest of us in the un-washed masses, could compete on an even playing field. They would get their superiority complex massaged, and the rest of us could compete in a more sportsmanlike manner...

But those days are gone... Now, it's the B1G East, and the rest of us.... I wonder how Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland fans feel ?

Robert on May 17 @ 07:38 PM CDT

Here is a link:


1970 John on May 17 @ 12:44 PM CDT

My reading of the early history—and alas I don’t have links—was that the Indian link was there from the beginning. Even while the Indian Wars were going on, Native American courage and integrity was being mythologized, particularly where there were no Indians...such as Illinois, which clearly drew its name from the Indian nation via the French translation.

White settlers—Americans—have always had a fascination with the Natives, reflecting in themselves a ruggeder breed than than those in the Europe they left. That was in part why the participants in the Boston Tea Party disguised themselves as Indians. Rousseau had his Noble Savages, and James Fenimore Cooper had Natty Bumpo palling around with Ching Gach Gook, the last of the Mohicans. (Cooper told the Indian not lost, teepee lost joke approaching 209 years ago.) That students made up “Illini” out of the whole cloth is improbable.

There is evidence that before WW I that Illini was already being informally used by the sports teams...and I can’t find a source, but I’m not making it up...with an Indian reference, a sports report discussing how our Indians (or similar wording) took the field. No, it didn’t make print often, perhaps that was the only time, but the linkage was made.

The use of Native imagery immediately after WW I in fund drive literature (with an Indian chief head in profile above the proposed stadium) suggests that the relationship had already been made. There was no text explaining why, hey, we think an Indian image here would be cool. It was a continuation, not a new creation.

And seriously, people in Ohio were calling themselves “Buckeyes” early in the 19th century, well before tOSU picked it up. I’m not sure when “Hoosiers” became a name for for white settlers, but of course before the Indiana picked it up. (Hmmm, Indiana, mythologizing Native Americans again...). “Illi I” was never used to describe white settlers of Illinois.

There’s more, but I’m typing this out on my cell phone and my finger is getting tired. Old people don’t use their thumbs.

But what I’m saying is that there always was a connection between “Illini” and Indians. This is something that Rosenstein and I can agree. And you’re whistling past the graveyard if you think that you can finesse it any other way. Rosenstein, who has built his career on calling Native images and anyone who uses them racist, is never going to let up. After all, can you compromise with racism and racists?

“Illini” whether a tribe or not is clearly as (faux) Indian in intent as “Oskee-wow-wow.” Or the Marching Illini saying “umgawa.” It’s all Chief. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Illini” is as Indian as Chief Illiniwek from which it sprang. You’re all in, or all out.

All that said, despite being a longtime Chief/Native imagery supporter (including financially, see North American Guardians Association), the recent pronouncement of people like me as having racist motivation is changing my mind. I’m not sure that I want to be associated with a group that impugns my integrity. Respect and understanding flows both ways, and perhaps it is time for the university to seek a new symbol, people who would be honored to be associated with one of the world’s great universities. I have ideas on that matter but for another day.

But don’t try to pretend that “Illini” was not intended to be Indian, however false or misguided. It’s simply not true. And those who are opposed to Chief Illiniwek will not rest until Illini is gone too.

illini82 on May 18 @ 11:07 PM CDT

1970 John like many liberals it appears claims to speak from their view of their so-called moral high ground as many anti-chiefers do. Near the end of his manifesto he reveals his true aim. To remove ALL things Illini regardless of historical and/or factual origin. The Chief and logo are gone but that's not enough. The war chant is now gone and ok I get that. The "3 in 1" is in the direct sights of the anti-chiefers and as revealed in his rant so is the name "Illini" itself.

There is no middle ground and there is no end point to which they will be truly satisfied. The goal posts keep moving. There are always more victims to be avenged whether they be real or imagined.

The race card is thrown almost immediately to those who merely want to engage in a discussion let alone disagree with their views and ultimate aims. It's easy and puts those who may disagree with their views immediately on the defensive. To them to disagree with their so-called righteous view of "how the world should be" puts you in the same category as a Nazi, Klansmen, skinhead, etc. The tactics are simple: Attack, degrade, smear and wear down the opposition. Sadly it has worked so rather than being satisfied they are only emboldened to reach further into the bottomless well of so-called grievances. If they can't find a victim they'll invent one to suit their needs to further advance their agenda.

One can only hope that society eventually gets sick and tired of their worn out and tiresome proselytizing. If history is a guide they won't give up. Neither then should we.

on May 19 @ 04:20 PM CDT

First, let's not tar all liberals with the same brush here. Secondly, I find it amusing that 1970 John can read Robert's post, which has been painstakingly researched, and state assertions about how the "Indian link was there from the beginning."

Really? Where's the proof?

Either back up your point with actual facts and verifiable sources (sources which, by the way, Robert quotes extensively) or admit that you are simply putting your own spin on things.

Yes, Native American imagery was tacked onto the Illinois sports teams for the better part of a century. Was it a good thing that this has stopped? We can debate that all freaking day. But this is the world we live in now. Even as an unabashed, died-in-the-wool liberal, I see no issue with calling the sports teams the "Fighting Illini," when it is crystal clear that the name was generated by a drive to honor Illinois citizens who gave their lives in World War One. This has been backed up and documented thoroughly. Any other reading of the facts is simply false.

1970 John on May 23 @ 09:22 AM CDT

Call me names, impugn my motives, whatever makes you feel good. And I'm fairly well versed in American history, or at least U of I thought so because it gave me a sheepskin in recognition of the fact. But whatever, you're free to take or leave my reading of history.

But if you think that saying "Fighting Illini" is about soldiers is going to save it from the likes of Kaufman and Rosenstein, you're whistling past the graveyard. They want "Illini" gone, fighting or otherwise, because "Illini" clearly has its origins in the Illini Confederation and you won't convince them otherwise. And you won't convince me either.

But what I don't want, however, is for Fighting Illini to mean nothing. I don't want it to be like the "Chippewas" of Central Michigan University, meaning nothing more than the Chippewa-apporoved "Action C" of their logo. I do want to preserve the university's traditions celebrating American Indian imagery and influences. I support the Native American Guardian Association (including financially) to "educate, not eradicate."

Strategically, the best way to defend "Fighting Illini" is to openly admit that it is Native in origin, and make sure that that is accepted enthusiastically by all involved (other than the implacable opponents of everything who'll never approve of anything). Otherwise you're playing prevent defense, which in this case is merely delayed losing.

If it comes down to only the name "Fighting Illini", that's a hollow tradition that I don't want. At some point, with "Oskee-wow-wow" gone, no more "Cha-he cha-ha" in Illinois Loyalty, no more Three-in-One, all slated for extinction by Kaufman and Rosenstein, you have "Fighting Illini" left? Who cares? Save us the trouble. Find a new symbol now. I'll volunteer my Polish-American heritage; I won't be offended.

Be clear, I support Fighting Illini, but with everything that goes with it and everything it means, and that is at its very core Native American. Take it or leave it.

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