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!