An indigenous student has written an open letter to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign administrators and all indigenous and Native peoples of the world saying she wants to commit suicide. She says she would use a gun on the school’s quad because of the painful burden she experiences in dealing with the Chief Illiniwek mascot.
Xochitl Sandoval, an indigenous student at the university, posted the letter on Facebook and explains that the letter is very personal and sacred and about her life and the legacy of disrespect and racism towards herself and the indigenous people who lived on this land and who continue to bear the unbelievable burden of having to fight for respect.
In a conversation with Sandoval, she said she has no plans to harm herself, but she was at her last wit’s end and thought, “What else can I do? I will condense my lived experience in a letter since nothing else has changed.”
In the letter Sandoval states the following:
“On March 11, I had the thought that I should commit suicide. On March 11, 2014, I specifically thought ‘blow your brains out on the quad.’ My process was as follows: Write a letter to Mr. Jamie (the UIUC Director of the Native American House) and explain that this whole Chief situation was so unbearable, and the apathy on behalf of Administration so painful, that it was obvious that nothing was going to change. Maybe suicide was the way. I would then purchase a gun, load it, go onto the quad, stand facing Union, bring the gun up to my temple, and pull the trigger.
Maybe by committing suicide, you, Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the Board of Trustees, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Administration will realize that no, I am not exaggerating about the emotional, physical and spiritual pain that seeing the former-yet-still-lingering Chief mascot has on me.”
Though the Chief Illiniwek mascot has been banned from the University and Chancellor Phyllis Wise has told ICTMN the mascot would not return, efforts to bring a new mascot to the school have been thwarted and an unofficial Chief Illiniwek still appears at some school games and elementary and middle school tours.
Sandoval also wrote that she had expressed her concerns in an email to her Spanish professor because other students had worn a sweatshirt and sweater with “Chief” on them in her class and felt the display was a violation of her rights as outlined by the university’s policies.
“In this email I articulated to her (Sandoval’s Spanish Professor) that as a student, I had rights that had been outlined by the University that ensured every student would have ‘freedom to learn, free and open expression with limits that do not interfere with the rights of others, respect for the dignity of others, and personal and institutional openness to constructive change.’
I explained to her that as an indigenous student, this image and every likeness to it represented a complete disregard for American Indian culture and spiritual practices, and that every time I saw it, it was not only an emotional stab, but also an impediment to my academic success. In the student handbook in Section 1-302 Rules of Conduct, number 5 states that ‘engaging in behavior which is so persistent, pervasive, or severe as to deny a person’s ability to participate in the University community’ is grounds for discipline, which every likeness to the Chief is to me.”
Sandoval says she has met with an attorney with dissatisfactory results. And when speaking with other students about the matter, she has been called part of a group of “uninformed people who were just looking for a cause,” an “embarrassing display of buffoonery at the UI,” and “popularity-seeking, incredibly unintelligent people.”
Sandoval also described meeting Ivan Dozier Jr., the “chief himself” at a public forum. After a presentation by Sandoval and other students at the Native American House, Sandoval quotes Dozier as stating: “When I was little I had a harrowing experience with animal crackers because I couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be eaten or not, and I couldn’t eat animal crackers, but we can’t ban animal crackers because of that.”
“I, along with countless others, have had to endure the unbelievable and unjust burden of educating a racist image so deeply imbedded in the psyche of this Campus.”
Though Sandoval does feel the upcoming success of graduating with a degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies, her graduation will be a bittersweet moment. “I want to stay here and keep fighting,” she said.
When ICTMN reached out to the university, Robin Kaler, the university’s associate chancellor for public affairs responded in an email:
“Federal law prohibits us from commenting on an individual student. I can tell you that whenever the university learns of students who face challenges that require intervention, we connect the student with assistance and we remain connected until we are confident the student’s well-being is restored.
“Race and ethnicity are complicated issues in our country, state, and university. While no one measure can address the issue, we will continue to hold dialogues about race and cultural sensitivity.”