University of Illinois Probes Threats Against American Indian Over Chief Illiniwek Mascot

The University of Illinois is investigating online threats made against an American Indian student on a Web page that defended the use of the school's Chief Illiniwek mascot, the university's chancellor said Tuesday.

In a letter sent Tuesday to faculty and others on campus, Chancellor Richard Herman said threats aimed at an American Indian student and American Indians in general were made on the Facebook social-networking Web site and appeared to have been made by students.

The Web page, which Herman said has been taken down, defended the university's continued use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot, a frequent subject of criticism by American Indians and others.

Faculty and others first were alerted to the existence of the Facebook page last week by an e-mail sent by a student, who quoted the page extensively.

"I say we throw a tomahawk into her face," one person wrote on the page in reference to the American Indian student, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

"I do not know the motives of the students who posted the threats, but I do know that their words are dangerous and racist," Herman said in his letter.

The university's Office of Student Conflict Resolution is investigating the threats, Herman said. He didn't identify the target of the threats or the students accused of making them, or say how many were believed to be involved. He was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

One faculty member said the woman who was threatened is one of her students.

"She's targeted because she has been very brave and active," professor Brenda Farnell told The AP on Tuesday. "She's been the recipient of hate speech before, to her face."

Farnell, part of the university's Native American Studies program, declined to identify the woman but said she is a graduate student and a Sioux.

According to the copy of the e-mail received by faculty and students last week, another person wrote on the Web page: "what they don't realize is that there never was a racist problem before ... but now i hate redskins and hope all those drunk casino owning bums die."

Ninety-five undergraduate students who identity themselves as American Indians are enrolled at the university's Champaign-Urbana campus, a university spokeswoman said. The campus has more than 30,000 students.

Chief Illiniwek, portrayed by a student dressed in buckskins, dances at home football and basketball games and other athletic events.

The Illinois mascot has been a source of tension for years.

Many American Indians and others complain that the chief and other American Indian mascots are demeaning and disrespectful of Indians. Supporters of the mascot, which has been used for more than 80 years, say it honors the contributions of American Indians to Illinois.

The NCAA in 2005 deemed Illiniwek and his dance a "hostile and abusive" use of American Indian imagery, and barred Illinois from hosting postseason NCAA events. The athletic association upheld its decision through two university appeals.

The men's tennis team felt its impact when it was barred from playing host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last May and Illini women's soccer team was prevented from hosting any games after winning an NCAA tournament seed last fall.

The university's board of trustees could discourage further threats by doing away with the mascot, Farnell said.

"They've been sitting here for years and years now," she said. "They seem to be totally oblivious of that."