Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2022-07-26, 04:34 authored by Maria A MearsMaria A Mears


Retired from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2007, the Chief Illiniwek mascot remains a pervasive image throughout the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois area. This dissertation explores the concept of collective memory, particularly in memory’s role in forming a collective identity. Chief Illiniwek, for many in this community, symbolizes honor and loyalty. More broadly, the Chief is part of the community’s collective memory and discussing the Chief evokes feelings of pride and nostalgia for many community members. This work puts Native American sports mascots in conversation with other controversial objects such as monuments to Confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus – both of which are images of great pride for some groups and hate and exclusion for others. 

This dissertation also explores the rise of the internet’s role in memory-making and preservation. I analyze the content posted in two Facebook groups dedicated to preserving the memory of Chief Illiniwek, and in some cases campaigning to reinstate him as the mascot/symbol of the university. Additionally, I analyze the material culture of Chief Illiniwek by exploring the current state of buying used and new Chief Illiniwek merchandise. I connect the current collecting of Chief merchandise to the historical practice of museums and academics collecting indigenous material culture and human remains. Both acts are predicated on the perceived need to preserve a group that no longer exists and alter narratives to fit within a white supremacist framework. 

I argue that the Chief maintains a presence within the Champaign-Urbana community due to the power of collective memory. More specifically, the Chief works as a way to memorialize a white supremacist culture. Efforts to rid Chief imagery are met with outrage and disgust by supporters and in these groups any supporters refer to those that are anti-Chief as outsiders or politically correct activists. I argue that the Chief debate extends far beyond the confines of the university and should be discusses as a community issue rather than a campus problem. As the university continues to distance itself from this racist imagery, many in the community still celebrates the Chief and the image continues to circulate and be displayed. 


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • American Studies

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Rayvon Fouché

Additional Committee Member 2

TJ Boisseau

Additional Committee Member 3

Cheryl Cooky

Additional Committee Member 4

Shannon McMullen