FOUR HUNDRED YEARS ago, middle America was populated by a group of native tribes known as the Illini.
They were among history's first underdogs - hunters and farmers outmanned by war, disease and displacement.
There were once 12,000 Illini in the area.
Today, there are none.
That is, if you don't count the guy who entertains the University of Illinois sports crowds by pretending to be a whooping Illini chief, dressing like a caricature and dancing like a fool.
He's historically inaccurate. He's morally questionable.
He's also, finally, thankfully, endangered.
Making a rare move that actually reeks of education, the NCAA on Friday banned from its postseason tournaments the use of 18 Native American nicknames and mascots it considers abusive.
Illinois is on that list. That means if it makes it to basketball's Final Four again, the words "Illini" and "Fighting Illini" will have to be as invisible as the culture they diminish.
Florida State is also on that list. So if it returns to baseball's College World Series, it will be without a flaming shred of "Seminole."
Then there is Southeastern Oklahoma State, which ... well, considering its nickname is the Savages, one can only hope they disband the athletic program entirely.
"It's about time," said Joseph Red Cloud, an administrative assistant with the influential Oglala Sioux tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D. "These names have always meant something different to Indians and non-Indians. They say they are honoring us. But many of us don't find it honorable."
To many sports fans, Native American nicknames are inspiration.
To many Native Americans, they are infuriating.
To many sports fans, the "Fighting Illini" is symbolic of their Midwestern spirit.
To which Native Americans ask, um, fellas, why do you think the original Illini were fighting in the first place?
Many feel that allowing Native Americans to force nickname changes is as silly as allowing folks from Ireland to mess with Notre Dame.
Yet few of those critics are from a culture that has been stolen, hidden and now demeaned.
In other words, Notre Dame fans, leprechauns weren't real people.
However, at Illinois, as in other places, the Native American nicknames have become as important as the ancient library or tree-lined quad.
It's as if, instead of trying to recapture an identity, Native Americans are being accused of stripping one.
To understand the importance of the NCAA's fist here, one must understand the stubbornness of those it cannot touch.
Think about this: It's illegal to drive around the Washington area with a license plate reading "Redskin" because it's considered defamatory, yet the town's pro football team continues to embrace the same name.
Now think about this: The term "Redskin" was originally used by settlers who paid money to bounty hunters for the decomposing skin of dead Native Americans.
"On one hand, Washington says it wants a government-to-government relationship with Native Americans," Red Cloud said. "But on the other hand, politicians walk outside to a team with a nickname that degrades us. What is that?"
Then there is the Atlanta baseball team, which, even as it is celebrating the racial fight of star Hank Aaron, continues to trumpet the racially ignorant Braves.
And don't forget the Cleveland Indians, who insist on using a buck-toothed, bright-red figure as their mascot.
Will the NCAA's decision force a change in the pros? Probably not.
There are millions of dollars tied up in those Redskins T-shirts and Indians mugs, and, in the world of sports, money always trumps manners.
But the NCAA's decision could certainly force a change in college names. All it takes is one national championship game with a patch over your nickname for a president to be convinced.
Though the NCAA has no jurisdiction over the conference-ruled bowl championship series, look for the football playoff folks to eventually follow suit. And wouldn't that be fun for Florida State? Although, officially, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has no problem with it.
"If I had a child and wanted to name it after you, wouldn't you consider it an honor?" asked Max Osceola, a tribal council member. "Once again, we have non-natives trying to decide what is right for natives."
Said Red Cloud: "I'm glad for them. But very few tribes are like that."
One day, perhaps, the trivialization of a culture will no longer be dressed as school spirit.
And racism will no longer be disguised as the Tomahawk Chop.
Bill Plaschke is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.