Since at least the early1970s, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of the University of North Dakota’s use of the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and related graphic symbols to promote its athletic teams. This report, prepared by an individual who has worked closely with UND’s presidents during most of this period, attempts to provide an historical and contextual perspective.
As a review of turn-of-the-century copies of UND’s yearbook, the “Dacotah” annual, reveals, Indian imagery was common in the University’s earliest days. Native Americans in full regalia even joined non-Indians in pageants and other events, often on the banks of the English Coulee. This is hardly surprising, since Indian names had been used by the white settlers to name cities, waterways, geographic features, businesses, and so forth (including, obviously, the word “Dakota” to refer to the state itself).
The use of symbols and graphic images also was common. For example, an Indian head symbol has been utilized for state highway markers since early in the century. Another Indian head emblem is the symbol of the State Highway Patrol, still painted on every squad car.
High school and college sports teams in North Dakota also adopted Indian-related team names. And although the number has declined, in part because of the sharp reduction in the number of schools in the state, there still are 15 schools using Indian-related team names, (13 primary and secondary schools, including five on reservations (1), and two colleges, the University of North Dakota (the Fighting Sioux) and Williston State College (the Tetons).
As UND Professor of Indian Studies Mary Jane Schneider points out in her book North Dakota’s Indian Heritage, many of those who claimed to be honoring Indians in this way were influenced by “white” ideas about Indian history and culture as portrayed in popular fiction, the media, and especially by Hollywood.
Still, she says, “Some idea of the magnitude of Indian contributions to North Dakota history and culture can be gained by trying to imagine North Dakota without any Indian influences: no names, no logos, no highway symbols, no trails, no forts, no pow wows, no Sitting Bull, no Sacajawea, no Joseph Rolette, no Dakota flint corn, no Great Northern Bean, and significantly fewer parks, museums, books, artists, doctors, lawyers, architects, and educators.
Without its Indian heritage, North Dakota would not be the same.”
According to Schneider, the development of the concept of “team sports” in Europe was influenced by the games explorers had seen Indians play in America, in which individuals acted as a unit and there was no individual winner. Athletic programs at UND date back to shortly after the institution’s founding in 1883. For many years, the teams were known as the “Flickertails,” perhaps an allusion to the University of Minnesota’s nickname, the “Golden Gophers.” Sometimes the teams were referred to as the “Nodaks.”
In 1930, after the adoption by the then North Dakota Agricultural College of the nickname “Bison” and a campaign led by the student newspaper, the University’s Athletic Board of Control adopted the name “Sioux.” During a decade when UND athletic teams dominated the North Central Conference, the new team name quickly became popular (“Fight On Sioux,” a song with a “tom tom” beat, is still in use today).
The “Nickel Trophy,” featuring an Indian image on one side and a bison on the other, since 1937 has been awarded to the winner of the UND-North Dakota State University football game (similarly, a “Sitting Bull” trophy goes to the victor of UND-University of South Dakota rivalry). The addition of the word “Fighting,” modeled after Notre Dame University’s “Fighting Irish,” occurred later.
Graphic symbols with Indian themes proliferated at UND in the 1950s and 1960s, extending even into the non-athletic realm (“Sammy Sioux,” a cartoon character who appeared on coffee cups and other items, is perhaps the quintessential example). A men’s pep club, the now defunct “Golden Feather” organization, promoted various kinds of “rah rah” activities centered, naturally enough, on Indian themes.
For many years female basketball cheerleaders wore fringed buckskin dresses and feather headdresses. At times during its 48-year history, the Varsity Bards, UND’s elite male chorus, began its concerts by yelling in a manner heard by some listeners as Indian “war whooping.” The practice
was ended a number of years ago.
Indian themes were commonly depicted in the giant ice sculptures created annually by UND’s fraternities and sororities as part of the now defunct “King Kold Karnival.” It was one of these sculptures, a vulgar and demeaning depiction of an Indian woman, that in 1972 precipitated a controversy that continues to this day.
Why had there been few protests until then? On the national level, tribes across the country, buttressed by favorable court decisions and the ideas of the Civil Rights movement, began asserting their rights of self-determination after decades of control by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. BIA reservation schools, for example, had long attempted to adapt Indian children to the majority culture, often at the expense of traditional Indian values.
New activist Indian organizations sprang up, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) headed by Vernon Bellecourt, who had grown up at the nearby White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. As had the Jewish anti-defamation and Black civil rights movements before them, the activists and a growing number of more conservative Indian leaders began to conclude that stereotyped cultural images were a roadblock to future progress.
At UND there was an even simpler reason: Until the coming of the federal “Great Society” programs in the mid-1960s, very few Native American students had ever enrolled at UND. But new externally funded programs began to appear, such as “Teacher Corps,” which prepared Indian students for careers as educators.
These programs brought comparatively large numbers of Native Americans to the campus (today some 349 have officially identified themselves as Indians, many others have not). Not all of these new students approved of the use of Indian imagery to promote “school spirit,” especially in the highly stereotyped way of a quarter century ago.
The UND Indian Association (UNDIA) was founded in 1968, an organization that over the years has provided valuable leadership experiences for Native American students who went on to distinguish themselves as UND alumni. Other Indian organizations eventually were created as well, and the issue of racist behavior toward Native Americans began to appear on their agendas.
As it turned out, all three of UND’s most recent presidents were called upon to face the issue of Indian imagery early in their respective administrations.
The administration of Thomas Clifford (1971-1992) began with protests and violence directed initially against a fraternity that had erected an obscene ice sculpture with a Native American theme. President Clifford, whose commitment to providing educational access and opportunity to Native Americans was unquestioned, negotiated with the aggrieved parties (including leaders of the national American Indian Movement) and agreed to eliminate those aspects of the use of Native American imagery that were clearly demeaning and offensive.
Virtually all Indian-related logos and symbols, including the popular “Sammy Sioux” caricature, disappeared. Although the Chicago Blackhawk logo, which had been used by the hockey team since the late 1960s, was retained, a new geometric Indian head logo was introduced in 1976 and adopted for most athletic purposes.
Clifford also insisted that Indian imagery be used with respect, and took steps to ensure that students, fans and others were aware of UND policy regarding the symbols. He also intensified UND’s efforts to include a focus on Native Americans in the curriculum, initially through a minor in Indian Studies, and to develop yet more programs to assist students.
In 1977, Clifford convinced the North Dakota Legislature to provide permanent state funding for both a new academic Department of Indian Studies and a separate Native American Programs office to coordinate support services for Indian students. Clifford also encouraged the Chester Fritz Library to build upon its important collection of Indian documents and artifacts (its famous White Bull manuscript, written by an Indian fighter at the Little Big Horn, has received international attention).
Encouraged by Clifford, Laurel Reuter, included a strong Native American emphasis in her development of what is today the North Dakota Museum of Art. During the state’s Centennial in 1989, UND was given responsibility for working with the tribes to ensure that native peoples were recognized in the celebration.
As the Clifford administration ended, UND began to see more Indian students who asserted their belief in preserving and living by traditional Indian values. One response was a new policy permitting the burning of sweet grass and other plants in UND housing as part of spiritual ceremonies.
Traditionalists occasionally found themselves in conflict with other Indian students who did not wish to mix ideology with the pursuit of their academic degrees.
In April 1987, a group of traditional students staged a highly publicized sit-in at the Native American Center to protest what it termed the University’s lack of responsiveness on a number of issues. For a time, the controversy created tension between factions of Indian students. The dispute was resolved, in part, through mediation provided by alumnus David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.
Gipp was but one of a new generation of Native American leaders who, among other things, had created two-year colleges on each of the reservations. The tribal colleges, and the recruitment of Native American students by other colleges and universities in the state and around the country, had begun to offer alternatives to prospective Indian students who previously would have attended UND. Moreover, other pressures from the reservations were manifesting themselves, and would become sharper in the Baker administration.
Clifford’s last public statement on the use of the name and symbol, often quoted during the present debate, was published in a newspaper interview on March 15, 1991: “I just don’t see the reason for changing it right now. The very leaders of the Sioux Nation supported that. When the leaders of the Sioux Nation come and tell me they don’t want it, I’ll respect that.”
Baker Administration: The team name issue
Shortly after the beginning of the Kendall Baker administration (1992-1999), an ugly incident occurred when a number of white students hurled epithets at a group of Native American children in traditional dance regalia who were riding a Homecoming float.
During the subsequent controversy, the Standing Rock tribal council requested that UND change the team name, and the University Senate approved a resolution opposing continued use of the Fighting Sioux name. Baker convened two well-attended Universitywide forums and visited the North Dakota reservations to seek input.
He announced his decision on July 27, 1993: UND would not change the name, although, as he had announced in January, it would drop the Blackhawk logo. A committee would be formed to propose steps that could be taken by the Athletic Department to ensure respectful use of the team name: one result was a mandatory public address announcement before every athletic event.
Baker asserted, the University would renew its commitment to cultural diversity with new, positive activity on many fronts, and would leave open the question of the team name for further discussion and education. This remained the position of the Baker Administration, despite at least five developments:
(1) The appearance of new campus organizations such BRIDGES (Building Roads into Diverse Groups Empowering Students) and the Native Media Center, committed to keeping the issue alive;
(2) The appearance of particularly vulgar cheering (such as “Sioux suck!”) and imprinted clothing worn by fans from opposing teams and depicting, as an example, a bison having sex with an Indian;
(3) An incident of “hate crime” in 1996 in which the life of an Indian student was threatened (one response was a rare joint letter by Baker and
Chancellor Larry Isaak to tribal officials reaffirming their commitment to diversity);
(4)Efforts by former hockey players, including alumnus Ralph Engelstad, to bring back the Blackhawk logo; and
(5) The unsuccessful effort to get the State Legislature to urge a name change.
President Baker’s last public statement on the issue was read into the record at a legislative hearing on February 5, 1999:
“A controversy over the use of the Sioux team name was among the first issues that faced me when I came to North Dakota in 1992. After much conversation and consultation, it was my conclusion that there was no consensus on this issue, not even among Native Americans. I decided, therefore, that the respectful use of the team name should continue and, indeed, that the appropriate use of the name could be a positive influence in helping UND encourage respect and appreciation for diversity in all of its forms. Although some individuals disagreed with me then, as they do today, this remains
my position on the issue.”
“In closing, let me be very clear: Although the approach UND took regarding the team name was and is, in my view, an appropriate one, I also have stated on numerous public occasions that the issue remains on the agenda for dialogue, discussion, and learning.”
Baker Administration: New challenges
As indicated earlier, President Baker also inherited new circumstances with respect to UND’s Native American constituency. Although the University Senate had set a goal of increasing Indian enrollment to match that segment’s percentage of the state’s population, it proved to be an elusive goal.
Much of the “progress” shown to date is more related to a sharp decline in white enrollment than to a large increase in the number of Indian students. In the 1990 census, self-identified Native Americans accounted for 25,305 of the state’s 638,800 residents (3.96%).
In the fall of 1992, Native Americans accounted for 306 of UND’s enrollment of 12,289 (2.49%), compared to 349 of 10,590, or 3.38%, in the
fall of 1999.
One reason for the slow progress was the “cherry picking” by out-of-state schools of Native American high school seniors. There also were new efforts by other in-state colleges, especially North Dakota State and Minot State Universities, to develop Indian related programs of their own and to more actively recruit Native American students.
Some have argued that the continued use of the Fighting Sioux team name and logo was a factor in some Indian students choosing not to attend UND.
In the fall of 1999, there were 855 self-identified Native Americans enrolled within the North Dakota University System. All 11 campuses enrolled Native Americans, with the largest number of them, 349, being at UND. Minot State University enrolled 148 and NDSU 94.
But perhaps the key factor restraining enrollment growth at UND was the remarkable development of the five tribal colleges (with much of the leadership coming from administrators and faculty with UND degrees). In recent years, the tribal colleges have been accredited, have made vast strides with respect to facilities, and have exerted considerable influence through joint action, both in the state and nationally (there are 30 tribal colleges in the U.S.).
Tribal college enrollment in North Dakota in the fall of 1999 was 1,045 students. In recent years, the North Dakota University System has welcomed the tribal colleges as partners in the state higher education scene, for example, by encouraging “articulation” in curricular matters, developing a cultural diversity tuition waiver program (which has benefitted more than 1,500 Indian students since 1993, the largest number at UND), and assisting the tribal campuses in upgrading their technology.
The system has remained neutral on the question of legislative appropriations for the tribal colleges. During the Baker administration, the leadership of the tribal colleges and tribal councils began to make new requests of the University. For example, they pressed for more direct financial aid and for more access to UND’s highly selective programs, especially in the health professions.
The tribal college councils and presidents formally objected to an interpretation of Indian history included in a textbook written by a UND faculty member (she eventually agreed to rephrase the offending passage in the book’s next edition).
The tribal presidents, supported by the councils, requested an end to the practice of grant proposals being written for reservation-related projects without the permission and participation of the reservations themselves, including a sharing in the overhead monies (today, most granting agencies insist on this practice).
And, as detailed below, the use of the Fighting Sioux team name and logo continued to receive attention on the reservations.
Baker Administration: Initiatives
Beginning in the early 1990s, UND no longer found itself the only act in the state with respect to the educating of Native American students. Nonetheless, the Baker administration initiated a number of new efforts to broaden its commitment to promoting diversity.
University funds were allocated to two committees charged with supporting diversity activities, and increased subsidies were allocated to events such as the annual pow wows of the UND Indian Association and the INMED program. In 1996, the Native American Center was moved to a more accessible location, and the Baker Administration stated its support of a Bremer Foundation-backed effort to raise private funds for a new center.
But perhaps the most significant development was the “bottom up” proliferation of new, mostly externally funded academic and service programs geared to Native American students in such fields as nursing, law, communication and psychology. The University also became involved in new reservation connected programs, particularly in the health and education sectors.
UND’s best-known program, the federally funded “Indians into Medicine” program (INMED), which in its quarter century of service has trained a significant number of the Indian physicians practicing in the United States, continued to prosper.
As the Kupchella administration began, the University listed 32 separate Indian-related initiatives and programs(5), clearly indicating UND’s status as one
of the nation’s premier universities in its commitment to providing access and opportunity for Native Americans.
On July 1, 1999, Charles E. Kupchella inherited the Baker position on the issue of the Fighting Sioux team name and logos. As with his two predecessors, the honeymoon was short. The news that UND had decided upon a new Indian head symbol for its athletic teams ignited another controversy, in part because proponents of an eventual name change perceived that the University had changed its open-minded position about further discussion of the issue.
President Kupchella summarized the situation, and his intentions, in a message to the University community at the beginning of the spring semester:
“One of the issues we will continue to address as the New Year begins is use of the logo-nickname. We will consider this in the context of our collective interest in building on our tradition of a positive campus climate as part of the strategic planning process already under way. As I indicated at a recent University Senate meeting, my approval of a new logo obviously touched a sore spot that has been present for many decades.”
“I saw the new logo as a respectful addition to a series of already existing athletic program logos, including other Indian symbols, used in conjunction with the long-standing Sioux nickname. I had already come to take great pride in the fact that the University has many noteworthy programs in support of Native American students.”
“As it turned out, much, if not all, of the negative reaction to the logo was really a reaction to the nickname. Some apparently saw the introduction of the new logo as a reversal of a trend toward ultimately doing away with the nickname or, at the very least, “entrenchment” on the name issue. I did not see it that way.”
“As we look ahead to the question of how or if we will continue to use the nickname, there are a number of factors to be considered. On the one hand, there is the question of whether an organization should be able to use the name of a group of people over the objection of any number of people in that group. Even if the answer to this is “no,” there is also the fact that all living alumni of the University of North Dakota have grown up with the Fighting Sioux tradition and many, if not most, are very proud of it.”
“Many of these alumni are bewildered and hurt that anyone would question the University’s intent of being respectful. They
all know that the University has made and is making a significant commitment to ensure the success of Native American students. Because alumni support is a hallmark of the University of North Dakota, this is not a factor that can be dismissed out of hand.”
“Also, the situation facing the University of North Dakota is not isolated. There has been and continues to be a vigorous debate nationwide about the appropriateness of using Native American names and images for athletic teams. Thus, there are a number of important dimensions to the issue that
must be considered carefully.”
“As I educate myself about the issue, I find that there are many unknowns and that those on different sides of the issue seem to have different sets of “facts,” as well as different perspectives. There are individual faculty, staff, and students, including Native American students, on all sides of the issue.”
“On January 27, the University Council will consider this issue. Following that, I will work with the University Senate and the Strategic Planning Committee in the formation of a group to examine the issue and to make recommendations to me on its resolution.”
“I will ask this group to help clarify the issues involved, to assess the range of positions on the issue held by members of various stakeholder groups, and to gauge the need for “education” about the issue. I will also ask the group to consider how other campuses facing similar issues have resolved them. I will
need the help of many people in order to resolve the issue to the long-range benefit of the University of North Dakota.”
“Particularly needed is the involvement of people who, even though they may hold a particular position, can articulate, understand, and respect opposing points of view.”
A New Presidential Commission
In February, Dr. Kupchella named the commission. He asked it to find the missing information he needs to make a decision, provide education for each other and all interested in the issues, and to examine the experiences of UND and other universities that have wrestled with nickname changes.
The Commission, he said, should outline alternative courses of action, indicating how negative impacts of each can best be reduced. Kupchella said that he, not the Commission, will make the ultimate decision.
The members include: Phil Harmeson, associate dean of the UND College of Business and Public Administration and UND’s Faculty Athletics Representative to the NCAA, who will serve as chair;George Sinner, former North Dakota governor and member of the State Board of Higher Education and retired farmer and business executive; Allen Olson, former North Dakota governor and now executive director of the Independent Community Bakers Association of Minnesota; Jim R. Carrigan, former Colorado Supreme Court justice and a retired U.S. district judge who is now a consultant on mediation and arbitration; Richard Becker, president of Becker Marketing Consultants and past president of the UND Alumni Association; Cynthia Mala, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission and a member of the Spirit Lake Nation; Fred Lukens, president of Simmons Advertising and a former UND basketball player; Nadine Tepper, UND assistant professor of teaching and learning; Leigh Jeanotte, director of the UND Office of Native American Programs and an assistant to UND’s vice president for student and outreach services; Michael Jacobsen, UND professor and chair
of social work; Roger Thomas, UND athletic director; Cec Volden, UND professor of nursing and an associate member of UND’s Conflict Resolution Center; Kathleen Gershman, UND professor of teaching and learning; Pamela End of Horn, a UND student from Pine Ridge, S.D. and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Angela LaRocque, a UND graduate student from Belcourt and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chipewa; and Chris Semrau, a UND student from Minot who currently serves as student body president.
The question of “permission”
What has been the position of the Indian peoples themselves, and especially of the 26 separately governed tribal groups, 16 located in five different states and 10 in three Canadian provinces, that make up the peoples known as “the Sioux,” or more precisely, the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota?
This question is complicated by the fact that many Native Americans live off the reservations. In North Dakota, for example, some 40 percent of the persons who identified themselves as Native Americans in the 1990 census — 10,022 of 25,303 — were “urban” Indians.
These “urban” Indians, as well as others of mixed blood who no longer officially identify themselves as Native Americans but who may have Indian features, tend to experience more acts of racism (such as the taunting of their children) than do
Indians residing on reservations.
Until 1992, the Sioux tribal councils in the Dakotas had not taken formal positions on the team name issue. Much has been made of an incident that occurred in 1968 and was reported upon at the time in the Grand Forks Herald.
A delegation from the Standing Rock Reservation headed by “Chief” Bernard Standing Crow, then coordinator of the Standing Rock Sioux Head Start Program, traveled to UND to “adopt” then President George Starcher into the Standing Rock Tribe and to give him an Indian name (“the Yankton Chief “), as well as to, in the words of the article, formally give UND “the right to use the name of ‘Fighting Sioux’ for their athletic teams.”
Although no documentation has been found at UND, the Herald article has credibility because it was written by Art Raymond, a Native American himself, and later UND’s first director of Indian Studies. On the other hand, the Standing Rock Tribal Council appears not to have been involved.
It is clear, however, that the Standing Rock Tribal Council was the first to ask UND to change the name, in a formal tribal resolution dated December 3, 1992 (and affirmed on December 2, 1998). The UND President’s Office also received and has on file six other resolutions from tribal councils requesting a name change, all of them seemingly generated in response to appeals by a UND student advocacy organization.
The resolutions include those of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
What is public opinion on this issue?
What do UND faculty, students, alumni and the residents of the state feel about the Fighting Sioux issue? Some say the solution is simple: majority rule. But is there a point at which “popular” can indeed become “oppressive”? Even many advocates of the
Fighting Sioux team name agree that its future should NOT be decided by a “vote,” even in the unlikely event that such a referendum was possible.
The assumption has long been that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the name. This appears to be true with respect to the student body.
In the spring of 1999, after the UND Student Senate adopted a resolution advocating a name change (vetoed by the student body president), student government commissioned a scientific survey by the Bureau of Governmental Affairs. It indicated that 83.4% of the student body were either “strongly opposed” or “opposed” to changing the name.
Over the years, at least two other legitimate student surveys have explored the issue. In 1987, a survey of Indian students by the Student Affairs Division found that 64% of the respondents approved the use of the term “Fighting Sioux.” However, Indian student approval appears to have waned. In November 1995 a “campus climate” survey of all students measured responses to the statement, “UND’s use of the Sioux name/logo isculturally insensitive.”
Some 79.1% of white students disagreed with that statement, while just 29.6% of Native Americans disagreed.
Besides the Student Senate, two other UND-connected bodies have adopted resolutions on the issue of athletic team names:
At its July 1972 meeting, the State Board of Higher Education instructed its institutions to review potentially offensive usage and to make appropriate changes. The motion stated “that recognizing that educational institutions are expected to exercise leadership in helping to solve problems of social relations and human understandings in this society; that they are expected to promulgate such basic American concepts as the worth and dignity of the individual regardless of race or creed; and that an education must be concerned not only with the cognitive behavioral change through the development of such qualities as tolerance, empathy, and brotherhood.
The Board of Higher Education directs all of the colleges and universities under its jurisdiction to re-examine their use of various athletic mascots, team nicknames, slogans, symbols, and rituals with a view toward assessing their appropriateness and suitability and with special concern as to their potential for offensiveness to particular racial or ethnic groups within this diverse society in which we live.
The Board further directs that all institutions make appropriate changes in these traditions.” The then Dickinson State College soon thereafter became one of the first in the country to change its team name, replacing the “Savages” with the “Bluehawks.”
At its March 1993 meeting, the University Senate, responding to the Homecoming float incident, voted 34 to 10 with five abstentions to recommend that the Fighting Sioux name be changed.
No scientific survey of alumni opinion has been done, although the author of this paper did conduct a readership survey in the late 1970s that indicated 40 percent of the recipients wanted no sports coverage in the Alumni Review (another 40 percent wanted more sports coverage), perhaps not an unusual finding since only a minority of UND’s more than 10,500 enrolled students attend sports events.
A credible, scientific survey of alumni opinion, and of the intensity of alumni holding various positions on the issue,
might be useful. There has been no shortage of petition drives on the issue.
The files of the President’s Office contain the results of several, on both sides of the issue. One of them, containing
the signatures of virtually all living former varsity hockey players and advocating the return of the Chicago Blackhawk logo, was organized by alumnus Ralph Engelstad.
This petition may be the origin of widespread speculation that Mr. Engelstad’s later $100 million gift may have been conditioned with an understanding that the name would not be changed.
Petitions, letters to the editor, and the quantity and content of media coverage must be considered, of course, since they often do reflect the views of those individuals who choose to communicate in that fashion. On the other hand, these methods of communication are particularly subject to manipulation by the advocates of a particular point of view.
Many a law-maker, for example, has learned to his or her regret that the number of phone calls received on an issue may not reflect the majority views of the voters back home.
The national scene
The movement to abolish the use of Indian mascots, symbols and team names is not a local issue, but rather a national one, with its own activist organizations (the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, for example), clearinghouses, Web sites and so forth. Local news stories about the UND controversy appeared immediately on Web sites around the country (the BRIDGES group operates its own Web site, linked to many others on the national scene).
These activist organizations operate at a number of levels, and despite the occasional public protest, mostly through educational, political and public relations activity. Much of the nation’s intellectual community appears to be solidly on their side (the Web sites are filled with scholarly articles on the subject). All in all, the movement appears to be quietly achieving some success.
So far, according to an estimate by activist Suzan Shown Harjo, about one third of the 3,000 Indian-related team names that existed 30 years ago have been changed. Much of the movement is directed against the use of Indian team names by high schools (the state with the most teams so named is Ohio, with 217), as well as against professional sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins.
The movement to pressure college teams to end their use of Indian names and symbols appears to have begun with a big victory in 1968, when Dartmouth University changed from the “Indians” to the “Big Green.” Since then, a number of schools have changed their names and/or symbols or mascots, including Marquette University, Stanford University, Dickinson (N.D.) State University, University of Oklahoma, Syracuse University, Southern Oregon University, Sienna College, St. Mary’s College, Eastern Michigan University, University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, Central Michigan University, Simpson College, St. John’s University, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Morningside College, Brainerd Community College, Mankato State University, Miami University of Ohio, Springfield College, Adams State University, Yakima College, Southern Nazarene University, Chemeketa Community College, St. Bonaventure University, Oklahoma City University, Hendrix College, and Seattle University.
Some universities have resisted pressure to change, including most prominently the Florida State University “Seminoles” and the University of Illinois “Illini.” The controversy in Illinois was recently depicted in an award-winning Public Television documentary, “In Whose Honor?”
The Florida State situation is often pointed to as a case in which a tribe has formally consented to the use of its name and even to such practices as non-Indians wearing tribal regalia during football games.
There are, in fact, two Seminole tribes, the larger one in Oklahoma. The Seminole tribe of Florida, which gave the approval, was recognized as a tribe in 1957 and consists about 2,000 members scattered on six small reservations. The Seminoles of Oklahoma, evicted from Florida by the federal government in the early nineteenth century, number about 12,000.
Another aspect of the national situation involves the taking of formal positions by various organizations against the use of Indian sports team names. Among groups who have done so are the National Education Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the United Methodist Church, the American Jewish Committee, the American Anthropological Association, the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the University of Wisconsin, Native American Journalists Association, the Society of Indian Psychologists, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages, the Linguistic Society of America, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
State civil rights commissions and other government entities have also been aggressive in many states, including neighboring Minnesota. Both the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have become involved in these issues. Just recently the U.S. Census Bureau issued a memorandum prohibiting the use in promotional activities of sports team names and imagery that refer to American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Summary: Pro and con in brief
It is difficult to summarize all of the arguments that have been mounted by those who take a position on the issue of the Fighting Sioux team name and symbol. Clearly, there are zealots on both sides of the spectrum. Less obvious are the shades of opinion among those in the middle zone (and, accordingly, their willingness to alter their views one way or the other).
But with those caveats, for the sake of discussion, these seem to be the pro and con positions. Proponents argue that the use of the name and symbol is meant to be a mark of respect for the Native peoples of the state and region, signifying the University’s appreciation of their history and culture, as well as its continuing commitment to providing access and opportunity to Indian students and of being of service to Native people on the reservations.
The word “Sioux” evokes positive feelings, not negative feelings. The top achievement award of the UND Alumni Association, second only in prestige to an honorary degree, has long been known as the “Sioux Award.” There is no intent to hurt anyone. It is further contended that many Native Americans support the use of the name and symbol, and that those Indians who protest are a small minority. Symbols similar to UND’s geometric logo (and the new Ben Brien-designed symbol) are popular on many reservations.
Some proponents concede that racist acts can occur in the environment created by the use of the name and the symbol, but rarely, especially since the University insists upon respectful behavior. Changing the team name and symbol would not prevent the possibility of racist acts, and, in fact, would remove an important mechanism for actively encouraging respect for diversity in all of its forms.
Regarding the meeting of the needs of Native Americans, the University’s record stands for itself, attested to by the existence of numerous Indian-related programs and other evidence. Those who focus exclusively on the name issue, it is argued, should instead concentrate their considerable energy on solving the remaining problems faced by Indians. But there is a more positive argument, too, in favor of continued use of the name: tradition, and the benefits that tradition can bring.
For most athletes and sports fans, alumni, students and residents of the state, the Fighting Sioux name and symbol evoke positive memories and perceptions of the University, as well as of Native Americans. Virtually everyone who pays attention to UND has known its sports teams as “the Fighting Sioux” for their entire lives, and among these people there is overwhelming sentiment not to change the name.
In fact, the positive feelings generated by the name and logo are translated into tangible support for the University, in dollars and cents and otherwise. The geometric Indian symbol alone generates the bulk of the $60,000 UND receives annually in royalties, most of which is spent on diversity-related projects.
Challenging or modifying this tradition – and especially when one implies that to support the Fighting Sioux name is to be a racist – is
to risk damage to the institution and its future.
Opponents argue that the use of Indian images in today’s sports world has nothing to do with “honoring” Native American people; rather, these are isolated images snipped from the mythology (and misconceptions) of the West for the pleasure of a large majority that is fundamentally unaware of, or unconcerned with, the culture of a living people.
There are indeed respectful ways to honor Native Americans through the use of Indian names and imagery, but using them for high school, college or professional sports is not one of them. Sports are intended to be “fun,” they argue, so it is impossible to truly control the verbal behavior of unruly fans, especially those from other schools.
Much of the “fun” of being a sports fan seems to include cheering against one’s opponent. Actions such as the “Sioux suck!” chant, the “tomahawk chop,” war whooping, etc., inevitably demean Indians, especially the young, even if such behavior is not motivated by racism. And racism, although involving a small minority, IS an issue: one who listens carefully to the current debate cannot avoid hearing it.
Manifestations of racism are inevitable, the opponents argue, whenever a group of people is trivialized, in this case by becoming an athletic symbol. Moreover, the “values” that are being “honored” through the use of Indian imagery – bravery, stoicism, fierceness in battle, etc. – are all too often stereotyped, more the creation of Hollywood than accurate reflections of the past.
Before and during the period of white settlement, many Indian tribes abhorred and avoided the warfare of the times, whether carried out by Indians or non-Indians. The stereotyping of Indian history and culture gets in the way of people understanding the contributions of and the challenges to modern-day Native Americans.
The continuing controversy itself creates a threatening and hostile environment for Indian students, regardless of their position or degree of activism on the Fighting Sioux issue. UND’s commitment to Indian-related programming (funded mostly with external grants, not state dollars or alumni contributions) is much appreciated, but is not “compensation” for the use of the Sioux name.
Finally, opponents argue, the flow of history is against those who wish to perpetuate the use of Indian imagery for sports purposes. A growing number of national organizations have taken a stand against such uses.
Many high schools and universities have changed or are in the process of changing their Indian-related team names. Those who resist the flow of history will eventually fail, opponents argue, and will be remembered in the way Orval Faubus and George Wallace are recalled today.
So, who gets to decide the Native American Mascot issue?
Technically, the State Board of Higher Education could decide, as could the State Legislature. As reported earlier in this paper, both of these bodies have gone on record that such a decision is best left to the campus.
There are other possibilities: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (as noted earlier, one of its committees already is on record as being opposed to racially based team names) could intervene, and, one can speculate, may do so if the remaining Division I schools such as Florida State and the University of Illinois end the practice.
UND’s academic accrediting agency, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has been challenged to take a stand on the issue as part of its commitment to multiculturalism.
Another possible external force may be the federal government, either through the Federal Trade Commission, which already has ruled that Indian logos cannot be trademarked (an appeal will be resolved shortly) or through the Justice Department, which has intervened in a North Carolina case in a way that suggests more litigation is on the way. For now, however, the decision appears to lie entirely in the hands of the President of the University of North Dakota.
Author: by David Vorland, Assistant to the President, University of North Dakota (UND)