Centuries ago, in the upper Midwest, existed a loose
confederation of Native American tribes that
included, among others, the Cahokia, Tamaroa,
Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and Peoria. In the Algonquin
language that many of these tribes shared, the native
inhabitants of the region were collectively known as
“ih-LYNN-o-ah.” Over time, French settlers in the
region evolved this pronunciation to its present
form, and in 1818, Illinois became the name of our
nation’s 21st state.
The University of Illinois was established in the
year 1867. Soon after, it began fielding athletic
teams named the “Fighting Illini.” The University was
as proud then, as it is now, to be associated with
the native peoples for whom the state was named. The
Illini attributes of strength, courage, and honor
were deeply admired and well-respected.
To early Illinois Indian tribes, the word “Illiniwek”
meant “we are men,” or “the complete man.” Football
Coach Bob Zuppke is believed to have been the first
person to use the expression “Illiniwek” in
describing the strength of the character of his
teams: “The complete man, the strong, physical man,
the intellectual man, and the spiritual man.” The
name “Illiniwek” would later prove the perfect
complement to the symbol chosen to represent the
tradition of Illinois’ athletics.
In 1926, two Eagle Scouts, Lester Leutwiler and Ralph
Hubbard, combined their extensive knowledge of Indian
lore in the creation of “the Chief” - a symbol to
represent both honor and tradition at the University
of Illinois. Over the years, the Chief has served as
a symbol of belonging for hundreds of thousands of
men and women, all proud to call themselves “Illini,”
and prouder still to honor the tradition for which
the Chief stands.
On October 30th, 1926, Chief Illiniwek made his first
appearance at Memorial Stadium. Portrayed by
co-creator Lester Leutwiler, the Chief thrilled a
crowd of nearly 60,000 spectators with an authentic
Indian dance during half time of a football game
against the University of Pennsylvania. As the dance
concluded, Chief Illiniwek met his Pennsylvania
counterpart – who was dressed as a Quaker – at the
50-yard line, and offered a peace pipe. The moment
proved an unforgettable one– the Chief became an
instant success and his performance a regular event.
Soon after the Chief’s inaugural appearance, the
“March of the Illini” and the “Pride of the Illini”
were composed to integrate the marching band with the
halftime dance. These marches, combined with the
singing of “Hail to the Orange,” came to be known as
the “Three in One”...a stirring halftime tradition
that has remained intact since 1928.
Chief Illiniwek embodies the attributes we value as
alumni, students, and friends of the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the
Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol
of an intangible spirit, filled with qualities to
which a person of any background can aspire:
goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage,
The Chief & The Tradition Today
In February 2007, the Board of Trustees' Chairman Larry
Eppley announced that Chief Illiniwek would no longer
serve as the symbol of the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, and that the Chief would no longer
perform at University events. Since that time,
supporters of the Chief Illiniwek Tradition have
worked diligently to reverse the Trustees’ decision,
to preserve the Tradition, and to seek ways to
promote the values it embodies.
In the Fall of 2008 the Honor the Chief Society Sponsored the Next Dance. Working with the Students for Chief, the Honor the Chief Society advertised the return of Illiniwek to the University of Illinois Assembly Hall. The event, held after the Ohio State football game, drew over 10,000 attendees and served as an educational forum on the history of the Chief Illiniwek tradition, coupled with Chief Illiniwek's stirring performance.
Since that day, the Next Dance has become an annual event with the 2010 Dance having just received confirmation from the University's Assembly Hall staff. For more information on the Next Dance, sponsored by the Honor the Chief Society, please visit the studentsforchief.com website.