Not saying that I'm a chief fanatic... I'm actually on the fence... but when the alternative is obscurity, I gotta wonder if we're not being a little to PC here...
How many are aware that the word "Illinois" is derived from Native American culture now? How many learned this from the "Fighting Illini" nickname alone, which doesn't require the Chief mascot? How many think the Illini Indians looked and acted like Plains Indians because of the stereotypical mascot? How many know a single fact about the Illini other than "they existed"?
You say the mascot himself was made aware of the mascot's heritage? That's not even close to the issue here. The issue is how much observers learn by seeing the dancing mascot. And not about the mascot's heritage, but about the real Indians he doesn't represent.
I don't buy that mascots teach us about Indians, or that Indians will disappear from our culture without mascots. Indeed, I've refuted such claims several times. For instance:
Mascots teach us Indians?
Losing war over mascots?
History gets "corrected" all the time. Sometimes the correction is even right (or at least a better interpretation of what's available)... isn't that better than being swept under the rug because it's too controversial to even bring up?
Mascot = only way to learn?
What I object to is the blanket assertion that it's black or white... you "c...are enough to dig" or you "don't care at all"... I'm not sure if mascots help or not... I just know that I wouldn't have even known the Illiniwek (sp?) existed without the mascot, cause I wouldn't have looked into it, even to the limited extent that I did... math and comp sci took too much of my time.
So, at least one example where the mascot was better than nothing.
Knowing where we came from is important, even when the way we learn about it is from questionable sources. If we care enough (obviously you do) then we dig deeper... if we don't, then well, it doesn't matter, does it? But I wouldn't be engaging you right now if I hadn't cared enough to find out why the U of I used an Indian (and an admittedly pretty generic one at that) as a mascot.
Do I believe I can speak for them? No. Do I believe I have an answer? No. Do I believe the mascot is harmful? That I don't know... it caused me to care enough to look a little... is that better than not looking at all? Apparently, you think it isn't...
If you want to propose a better way to bring awareness that actually gets people's attention, I'm all ears... but I can just comment on one that got me to look deeper than "Oh, it's a mascot..."
I don't expect students to go out of their way to learn about Indians. The university put a lot of resources into promoting Chief Illiniwek. If it put a fraction of those resources into promoting real Indians, students would get the message.
The university has its Inclusive Illinois program, which looks decent. Part of that should be teaching about the state's Native heritage. If the program works the way it should, students should know about the Illini by the time they leave.
If they don't learn about the Illini, then revamp the program until they do. But there is no need whatsoever to rely on a clownish mascot to impart this information. Your "mascot or nothing" choice is a false one.
Why a Plains chief?
If you seriously think a mascot is the best or only way to learn about Indians, okay. What's your excuse for this stereotypical Plains chief? Keep the mascot but get rid of the non-Illini costume and dance routine. Make him look like an actual Illini Indian from the old days. Better yet, make him look like one of today's Peoria Indians of Oklahoma, the Illini's closest living relatives.
You've barely come up with an excuse for keeping some Indian mascot. You haven't come up with an excuse for keeping the stereotypical Chief Illiniwek. If you're defending this particular mascot, you're defending the racist stereotyping of Indians. That's not what I'd call a defensible position.
For more on the subject, see Barnhill Speech at "Next Dance" and "Next Dance" Is Educational?!