December 8, 2006

The Sioux Crew—The Whole Story of the University of North Dakota and the Fighting Sioux

I should have written about this weeks ago. I knew that there was more to the story than what the governor of North Dakota (a Dartmouth '79) and the president of the university said, but I didn't bother to actually look it up.

Here's the story:

There is a 3,00010,000-seat, $104-115 million ice hockey arena sitting on UND's campus that was paid for by one Ralph Engelstad with the express intention (I would call it actual coercion) that UND would keep the Sioux name for its teams. To make this virtually permanent, "Fighting Sioux logos are carved in [all or nearly all] cherry wood-framed seats, etched in glass doors and inlaid on marble walkways" and "in gold script at the arena's entrance, displayed next to a life-size statue of the school's late benefactor [are the words]: 'The Fighting Sioux logo, the Fighting Sioux uniforms, the aura of the Fighting Sioux tradition and the spirit of being a Fighting Sioux are of lasting value and immeasurable significance to our past, present and future.'" (From the WaPo)

Imagine, for a second, how 1) embarrassing, 2) expensive and 3) contract-breaking a switch of mascot would be for the University of North Dakota.

Now imagine this:
[T]he Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA/CAS) has issued an evaluation report regarding UND that strongly urges the school to change its mascot. However, the NCA can only issue recommendations and has no enforcement powers.

The NCA/CAS is an accreditation and evaluation organization based in Chicago, Ill. that promotes a system of higher education that enhances student learning, fosters healthy students, prepares youth to live in a diverse world, and protects the public trust.

In 2000, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education ignored protests from college alumni and decided to keep the Fighting Sioux as the team name. This decision was made despite complaints from tribal governments, the National Indian Education Association, the National Congress of American Indians, and many other organizations determined to change the name.

The NCA report states that the evaluation team which visited the UND campus was aware of the long history behind the conflict and was informed that the president of the university, Charles Kupchella, was working to ensure that the use of the logo was respectful to all concerned. After this, the team believed the issue did not matter to their evaluation and expected to consider it closed in respect to the 2000 board decision.

But by the end of the visit, the team discovered that the issue was definitely not closed.

The report states, "The issue was clearly not at rest. It continues to be raised by those who consider it a moral issue as well as by those who do not object to the symbols but who deplore what is happening to the campus. It is clear that it will simmer on until it boils over again openly, while in the meantime diminishing collegiality and learning for many in the campus community. It will not go away."

The NCA report goes on to state that the team believes the Fighting Sioux logo creates such disharmony among students and the university community that a name-change is the only solution in "moving the campus forward." [...]

The NCA report contained a section that listed the team's comments regarding the use of the Fighting Sioux name and logo. These comments are as follows:

I. This persistent controversy has a negative impact on the learning environment at the University of North Dakota. It adversely affects student participation in the classroom and the laboratory. It adversely affects student relationships in residence halls and in sports and other recreational activities. It encourages disrespectful treatment of some students by other students and by some faculty and staff. Team members also hear that it adversely affects student recruitment and retention. It is an issue which distracts students, faculty, staff, and administration from the very important business of higher education.

II. Continued use of the logo is manifestly inconsistent with the university's goal of being the foremost university in the nation in the programs it offers for and about American Indians, a goal as important to the state and university as it is to those served by it.

III. It is particularly awkward for an American university, which endeavors to teach and model respect for others and sensitivity to their perspectives, to widely and prominently employ a logo and nickname that a substantial number of American Indians and their organizations have said and continue to say is offensive and demeaning.

IV. Times change. Values and practices change. As the nation has moved over the last century to de-legitimize and reduce discrimination against minorities, it has become less tolerant of the use of stereotypes and language regarded as offensive by minorities and many others. There was a reason to change the nickname from Flickertails in 1930. There is reason to change the nickname from Fighting Sioux today. If UND continues on course, it will be increasingly out of step with the times.

V. In the short run, there is no win-win resolution to this controversy. In the long run, if use of the logo and nickname were discontinued, everyone would win. In the long run, if use of the logo and nickname are not discontinued, everyone loses.

VI. Ultimately, the University of North Dakota is too good an institution, and its leadership is too important to the State of North Dakota, to let this issue continue to weaken its performance and impede its full development. The state board should revisit its earlier decision and direct the campus to develop and implement an orderly plan for discontinuing use of the Indianhead logo and the Fighting Sioux nickname.

VII. But these comments are nothing UND President Kupchella hasn't heard before. The arguments against the Fighting Sioux team name have been consistent throughout the 30 years of conflict, but none have succeeded in bringing an end to the offensive logo.
The whole article is long, and you may get the point. Kupchella is being at least disingenuous when he implies that the issues have been resolved satisfactorily, if not outright misleading. Not only that, but there is good reason to believe the UND administration has been disingenuous in the past in regards to this issue.

I am only reporting on all of this because I think many alums and many students actually believe that Josie Harper's letter was ill-informed, rash, and wrong. What do I think? It was principled, factually sound, and on target. UND is wrong in its position and it is covering that up because of Engelstad's donation. Its policies are being dictated by one [now dead] alum, and that is institutionally wrong.


  1. Anonymous3:27 PM

    That's the other side of the story, I suppose. The ND governor and the UND president aren't wrong to point to the differences between UND's and Dartmouth's handling of the issue, but they're wrong to the extent that they suggest that the Fighting Sioux mascot is uncontroversial and universally embraced by local Native Americans.

    On the other hand, UND didn't have to take Engelstad's money. It's not like he made his donation 40 years ago. They knew what they were doing, and a generous donation with strings attached isn't the same thing as coercion. From what I've read about this, it was clear from the beginning that Engelstad wanted to ensure that UND couldn't take his money and then renege on its side of the deal. UND might have gotten itself into a bind, but it wasn't coerced into it.

    Regarding the NCA's findings, I see nothing surprising. They don't like the mascot. Their "findings" are consistent with that.

    Regarding Josie Harper's apology, I see no indication that she had any thought other than "look, another school with an Indian logo." I see nothing principled about her apology, and I think she deserves all the criticism she gets.

  2. What I mean by coercion is that, after construction had already started, it looks like he tried to derail any further discussion of the mascot/name. He coerced the president and the university into trying to bury the discussion permanently.

    I kind of think these findings may have some validity. I'm not under the impression that they are some liberal watchdog agency or anything like that. Besides, their findings have been backed up by numerous people and organizations, like the president of the American Psychological Association in 2001.

    Finally, I don't think Josie's letter was quite as off-the-cuff as you imply. Who's to say she hasn't heard about the controversy there?

  3. Anonymous2:40 AM

    So you make fun of The Review for typing South Dakota instead of North Dakota in their blog (since fixed), then go out and grossly mistate North Dakota's arena size? Englestad Arena seats more like 10,000 - not 3,000.

    Pot, meet kettle.

    And, it's hard to believe anyone involved in Division I athletics, especially at a hockey school, hasn't known about the North Dakota situation for years. Josie certainly knew about it well before the Sioux were ever scheduled to come to Dartmouth. It's just no one cared about the nickname until about three weeks ago. And in a sane world, it'd still be that way.

    I'm really hoping to see protesters at the games on the 29th and 30th. I'd love to have a good laugh before walking into Thompson.

  4. The 3000 figure comes directly from the Washington Post article I cited, so the kettle thing isn't exactly applicable.

    And your point about everyone knowing about UND's situation just proves my point that Harper's apology wasn't made in ignorance of the controversy there. Whether she didn't care about that before or just didn't have reason to express her feelings, I don't think we're qualified to judge.

  5. Anonymous1:04 PM

    I notice no quote or condemnation from the Sioux tribe in your article. I find it interesting that other Indian tribes call for the UND to change it's mascot but not the Sioux leadership.

  6. A) There's more than one Sioux tribe


    B) Here you go. Here's the opinions of many Sioux tribes regarding the mascot.

  7. first anonymous2:03 PM

    Jim Wright has tried to smooth things over. Sounds like he said all the right things.

    Fair point about the off-the-cuff thing. The letter struck me as a weird in its source, timing, and syntax but it's just a visceral impression on my part.

  8. UND president Kupchella is all about misleading statements. Cheers to you for catching on and doing your research instead of just accepting what he said.

  9. Anonymous12:08 PM

    This Native says, God bless Engelstad. I'm just jonesin' for the day Dartmouth has an alum that does something similar. And, baby, if someone donates money to a college and predicates it on seeing certain of his wishes fulfilled, that ain't coercion. Are you kidding? It's done all the time.

    Yes, what they should have done is reject the gift..hahaha. Now that I'd like to see: reject a 100 million dollar gift over a Indian mascot--a subject which the Native community is itself divided over. I guess they didn't want to be epic idiots. Good for them, cuz Indian mascots are here to stay. Deal with it.

    Natives have more to worry about than mascots--real problems like, you know, alcoholism, poverty, education, etc.

  10. Does that etc. include racism and unapologetic assholes like you?

  11. Native Alum4:06 PM


    First, the rapidity with which you quickly devolve into unnecessary ad hominems (e.g. a**hole) is just troubling. I'm rather chill...but whatever.

    Secondly, I can't see how you seriously maintain Natives have something to fear from me cuz I'm a Native myself. I realize that's not some inherent logical impossibility...just that I guess on average you'd expect Natives to care about their own, right? I certainly think I do. And, man, to talk as if I'm a problem alongside alcoholism or illiteracy or poverty is offensive even if laugh-inducing.

    Look, my simple point is that I think Indian mascots are sweet and inspiring. And there not going anywhere. There at Cleveland, Illinois, Florida, Kansas City. Deal with it. Fighting them is a big fat waste of time. And calling or insuating racism on the part of the millions of fans who venerate them is silly. I can't wait until Dartmouth wakes up and returns the Indian symbol to it's rightful place. Many still tattoo it on their inner thigh.

    I next hope someone advocates taking down that statue of the Indian in the Tower Room! Let's leave no Indian image standing!