It’s been three years since students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign passed a campuswide proposal for a bird called the kingfisher to be the new school mascot.
This spring, students started creating the kingfisher costume.
Former student Spencer Wilken first sketched a belted kingfisher as a senior at the university. She drew the bird idly during class, having seen kingfishers countless times around her family farm outside Kinmundy, Illinois. Female kingfishers are blue and orange, the same colors used by university athletics, and the birds are commonly found throughout Illinois.
In 2007, the university retired Chief Illiniwek, a fictional American Indian figure, after the NCAA deemed it “hostile and abusive.” Since then, there has been no school-sanctioned replacement mascot for the Fighting Illini.
As a student, Wilken, whose last name at the time was Hulsey, was aware of the longtime mascot controversy, so she submitted her kingfisher drawing to the Illinois Student Government, which put the proposal to a vote.
The kingfisher proposal passed by a margin of 625 votes out of about 7,800 cast.
While the 2020 vote was only advisory, the potential new mascot can be seen on campus today, according to supporters. Kingfisher admirers sport the bird on shirts and stickers, and in the last year, painted two kingfisher murals on campus.
For student Evan Lemberger, creating a mascot costume was a natural next step in promoting campus identification with the kingfisher.
“The idea (to create the costume) came from me just liking the idea of getting a new mascot and establishing a new tradition on campus,” he said. “But what I wanted, what I felt was missing, was sort of a centerpiece to it all.”
Lemberger hopes that once the costume is finished, more students will step in to help promote it. He said someone will need to be chosen to wear the costume, and he envisions student organizations asking the kingfisher to appear at their events. For now, it’s just he and one other student creating the costume.
The work began once student Ellie Rebellón, with Wilken’s guidance, drew up the designs.
She and Lemberger hope to complete the costume by May. Rebellón will make the head and feet, and Lemberger’s responsibilities include the body suit, gloves, tail and feathers.
Though the students are just getting started on the costume, drawings reveal the bird will look strong and menacing with orange, blue and white wings and long, clawed feet. A large head complete with feathers and a prominent beak could be the most difficult task in the creation process, according to Wilken. The timeline may be extended if many head iterations become necessary.
The whole project should cost about $1,000, Rebellón said. A March fundraiser organized by Wilken raised almost $950 in four days.
For longtime artist Rebellón, the opportunity to create a mascot costume means taking a stand against inappropriate representations of Native Americans. People still wear merchandise featuring the chief on campus today, which she called “infuriating.”
“I’ve worked with a bunch of different mediums, but when I came into this, I was excited because this was my first time taking a serious public matter and also combining it with my artistic abilities,” she said about the project.
After three years spearheading the kingfisher campaign, Wilken also said it’s rewarding to see that students want to build the costume. She said there’s something significant about a mascot’s role in the community, especially after years of campus controversy.
Wilken said filling the mascot void means more than just creating a new campus tradition. She said that because the school has not chosen a new mascot, images of the chief can often still be seen around campus. The image continues to divide the community, she said.
“Our goal is to show administration and faculty and all the people that have supported us up to this point, and those who maybe haven’t, that it’s OK to have a mascot,” Wilken said. “It’s OK to have a mascot that is inclusive, that can be ours, that’s one for the future. Future generations of students are allowed to have that. They don’t have to be asked to inherit a void.”
For Wilken, the void could be easily filled by the kingfisher, but others still aren’t sure.
Wilken admitted that not everyone is on board.
Some people Wilken has spoken to have said there should be a new mascot but not the kingfisher. Others, she said, are comfortable living without a new mascot.
Still, some people want to see the return of Chief Illiniwek. Its many champions call it a symbol, not a mascot.
Ivan A. Dozier, president of the Honor the Chief Society, said he is disappointed but not surprised to see that students have started to create the kingfisher costume.
He said the university had the chance to partner with Native American tribes, as did Florida State University and the University of Utah, and to honor the name Illini while “scaling back on the imagery.” Dozier said the university could be like the Chicago Blackhawks or the Atlanta Braves and actively raise awareness and monetary support for Native American people.
The University of Illinois named an associate vice chancellor for Native aAffairs in 2021. In her role, Jacki Rand acts as a liaison “to help the campus establish and maintain respectful relationships with Native American Nations and help our university adopt standards and strategies appropriate for Native tribal and Indigenous community engagement.”
Dozier said he believes Illinois’ priority is to move beyond Indigenous history by replacing the chief.
“Anyone who feels that a bird or wolf is a suitable replacement for a symbol of Native American spirit clearly has no respect for Indigenous history,” he told the Tribune. “If the students really want to capture how Illinois fans will feel about the kingfisher, they should name the bird ‘Flip.’”
For Wilken, a return to the chief is “not gonna happen.”
Although students voted in favor of the kingfisher, Wilken said the campaign has since been moving at a slow but steady pace. This fall, the bird will appear only at student group events and intramural sports, important first steps to kingfisher fans.
“We’re gonna slowly just work with the students to get their perceptions of a mascot,” Wilken said. “We already passed the vote, and this is a popular idea, but we’re still all about taking things steady, and so slowly introducing it to places that we were already asked to be.”
Kingfisher appearances at intercollegiate athletic events like football and basketball games are still far down the line, if they will ever happen, Wilken said.
The current process for adopting a new mascot was outlined by Sean Garrick, the vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, in an April 6 email. Following the Native American Representation and Reciprocity Committee recommendations released last summer, a new committee will focus on “reviewing and disseminating a historical account of the campus with relation to the former symbol” with work to be completed within one academic year, he said.
Garrick added that a Building New Traditions Working Group will at the same time “focus on facilitating the establishment of new traditions that promote belonging, inclusiveness, and school spirit,” including the consideration of a new mascot.
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Ethan Cooper, the chair of Illinois Student Government’s Committee on Campus Affairs, said that based on the guidelines recently laid out by university administration, he believes the kingfisher would be a great fit for this potential new mascot.
But any steps toward making the mascot official will be taken by Chancellor Robert Jones.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said the school “continues to engage the campus community around new traditions that will help our university heal and move forward.”
Kaler said administrators have taken no action on the belted kingfisher.
Still, Wilken said she’s optimistic that kingfisher supporters will hear news from the chancellor soon. She said the university’s increasing willingness to talk about the issue has been a big change over time.
Although at first nervous about seeing the kingfisher costume on campus, Wilken said she’s excited by the high level of support she’s seen after revealing that the costume is being created.
“I was nervous about what would happen when this news broke, and the answer is we’ve gotten resounding support,” Wilken said. “We raised funds in four days. Everyone’s ready to see what this could look like.”