One of the most dramatic and dignified traditions in college athletics is the performance of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois. Since 1926, this symbol has stirred pride and respect in audiences at Memorial Stadium, the Assembly Hall and Huff Hall, for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illiniwek (pronounced “ill-EYE-nih-wek”) was the name of the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. The French changed the ending to “ois” in naming what became the state of Illinois. Illiniwek means “they are men” and former Illinois Fighting Illini football coach Robert Zuppke is believed to have suggested calling the UI symbol Chief Illiniwek.
In 1926, Assistant Band Director of the Illinois Fighting Illini Ray Dvorak conceived the idea of performing an American Indian dance during halftime of the Illinois vs. Pennsylvania football game in Philadelphia. Lester Leutwiler, a student interested in Indian lore, was chosen for the role. Leutwiler’s performance, done in a homemade costume, was received so well that he was asked to continue his dance through the 1928 season.
Webber Borchers, the second Chief Illiniwek, was the first to appear in authentic American Indian regalia. He initiated a campaign to raise money to replace his homemade outfit with an authentic one, but with the Depression on, he received just $15 dollars. However, a Champaign merchant stepped in to fund the rest and Borchers was off.
He recalled: “In the summer of 1930, I went, at my own expense, to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I hitchhiked out, called an Indian agent and explained my mission. He and an Indian trader called in an older Sioux woman. She and two younger women made the suit.”
On Nov. 8, 1930, in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Illinois faced Army in the seventh game of the season. It was there that Borchers made the first appearance of Chief Illiniwek in that outfit. Since then, five different authentic outfits have been used by Chief Illiniwek. The one used in performances now was purchased in 1983 from Sioux Chief Frank Fools Crow, and is topped by a headdress of turkey feathers.