Here and there, more and more, the blue and orange bird known as the belted kingfisher is starting to appear outside its normal habitat of lakefronts and riverbanks.
It has become widespread around the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where its visage has been captured in neighborhood murals and on students’ T-shirts and face masks. It’s now showing up around Chicago, where alumni distribute logo-laden merch.
The bird’s widening range is part of a student-led, two-years-and-counting campaign to make the bird the university’s official mascot. Backers say that judging by kingfisher sightings, the flock of admirers is growing.
“I’d say it’s been going very strong,” said 2020 graduate Susan Zhou, who is helping to lead the charge among alumni. “We do a lot of drives to get kingfisher gear into (fellow alums’) hands. They become ambassadors for the brand. They believe they can be part of this new movement while they’re not on campus.”
Yet for all the increasing visibility, the kingfisher still appears far away from official recognition by the university, which continues to grapple with how to move on from the exiled Chief Illiniwek.
Earlier this year, a campus committee on new traditions suggested the formation of yet another committee that would build a framework to introduce, review and promote ideas that aren’t linked to American Indian imagery or traditions.
The initial group concluded a new mascot should indeed be created but didn’t specify what it should be, said Dana Yun, a 2022 graduate who was part of the committee. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the leadership team of Chancellor Robert Jones is still evaluating how to organize the second group.
Despite the glacial, only-in-academia process, support continues to grow elsewhere. The National Congress of American Indians last week endorsed the effort to create a new mascot, suggesting in a letter to Jones that it would fill a void in the university community.
“When harmful Native ‘themed’ mascots are retired but not replaced, harmful imagery persists as the community fails to come together around a new identity that is truly representative of them,” wrote Executive Director Larry Wright Jr.
Kaler said the school appreciates “the input and perspective from the National Congress of American Indians regarding the harm Native imagery causes, and we continue to engage our campus community around new traditions that will help our university heal and move forward.”
The university in 2007 retired Chief Illiniwek — called a symbol, not a mascot, by his many champions — after the NCAA found the chief to be “hostile and abusive.” Nothing has taken his place, and students and alumni say his image is still a common sight on campus and elsewhere.
An advisory panel in 2018 suggested the school consider adopting an official mascot. The next year, a prototype dubbed Alma Otter was narrowly defeated by students in a nonbinding referendum.
The mascot based on the belted kingfisher, a native Illinois species that shares the school’s colors, has done much better. Created by student Spencer Wilken, who has since graduated, it won support in a 2020 referendum and was later endorsed by the campus senate and student government.
But Jones will make the final call on any mascot, and the new committee’s deliberations promise to stretch the timeline further. Kaler did not respond to a question about when the decision might happen.
That has left student and alumni supporters to continue their push.
Wilken, who is still involved in the campaign, reached out to the National Congress of American Indians. Though the organization didn’t advocate for the kingfisher or any other specific mascot, Wilken said its general support is still important.
“This endorsement is just another piece of that puzzle proving it is important that the University of Illinois moves forward with adopting a replacement plan,” she said.
Sophomore Ethan Cooper, who is helping to lead the push on campus, said from his vantage point the kingfisher has become more visible than the chief, especially when you count giveaway stickers plastered on water bottles and laptops. He added, though, that football games remain a Chief-centric environment.
He said the next moves will be to try to enlist the support of the school’s culture houses and to continue lobbying the administration.
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“I’m just hoping to see it become official by the time I graduate,” he said.
The campaign to sway alumni, many of whom have deep-seated loyalty to the school’s former symbol, could be the trickiest part. Zhou said alums of all ages have requested kingfisher gear, and two Facebook groups dedicated to the mascot have about 1,800 followers between them.
But there are at least 16 groups devoted to the chief on the social media platform that together have more than 5,000 followers. They include “We’ll Never Forget Chief Illiniwek,” “Bring Back Chief Illiniwek 2.0″ and “I Hate Anyone Who Opposed Chief Illiniwek” (that one, it must be said, has only three followers and zero posts).
While such lingering allegiance might seem daunting for the pro-kingfisher movement, it actually makes Yun hopeful.
“That’s how powerful a mascot can be,” she said. “All of these people still feel connected to it. That’s what we want to give to the new generation of students.”