Civil Rights Commission ruling bolsters Native student movement at UND

By Jeff Armstrong 4/20/01 Native American Press/Ojibwe News

A 30-year campaign led by University of North Dakota students and faculty to scrap the school’s "Fighting Sioux" sports nickname was bolstered last week by a recommendation of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that non-Native educational institutions abandon "stereotypical imagery."

"These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country," the federal advisory body stated in an April 13 opinion.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university had no immediate response to the recommendation, suggesting the decision remains in the hands of the state Board of Higher Education.

"It’s not unlike the school board making a decision," said Johnson. "The principal follows the lead of the school board. I would think if the board asked for [UND president Charles Kupchella’s] input, he would provide it."

Johnson said the board will be meeting at the end of the month, but he was unaware if the UND controversy will be on the agenda.

President Kupchella has been plagued by the dispute since taking over administration of the school two years ago. A few months into his tenure, he sparked an angry, emotional outpouring by Native students when he unveiled a new indigenous-faced logo produced by a Turtle Mountain Chippewa artist.

In response, Kupchella formed the Commission to Study the Fighting Sioux Athletic Team Nickname--a body which included Native representatives and two former governors--to examine the issue and make recommendations to the president. Before Kupchella was to issue his decision, however, he was trumped by the Board of Higher Education, which met covertly by videoconference last December and unanimously voted to retain the Fighting Sioux moniker. Utilizing a technicality in state open meetings laws, the board waited nearly a month before releasing its decision--too late to invalidate the ruling by means other than a court challenge.

It later emerged that the board’s actions were prompted by threats from Las Vegas casino owner Ralph Engelstad to withdraw a $100 million pledge to the university if it were to change the nickname. Engelstad, already a controversial figure due to an apparent affinity with the Third Reich (he was fined $1.5 million by Nevada gaming authorities for celebrating Adolph Hitler’s birthday twice in the late 1980’s and is the proud owner of cars formerly belonging to the Fuhrer himself and SS commander Heinrich Himmler), warned Kupchella Dec. 20 in no uncertain terms that he would pull the plug on an $85 million sports arena if the president did not reaffirm the Sioux logo by the end of the month.

"I have spent, as of this time, in excess of $35 million, which I will consider a bad investment, but I will take my lumps and walk away," Engelstad wrote.

"As I am sure you realize, the commitment I made to the university of North Dakota was, I believe, one of the 10 largest ever made to a school of higher education, but if it is not completed, I am sure it will be the number one building never brought to completion at a school of higher education, due to your changing the logo and the slogan.

"You need to think how changing this logo and slogan will affect not just the few that are urging the name change, but also how it will affect the university as a whole, the students, the city of Grand Forks, and the state of North Dakota.

"If I walk away and abandon the project, please be advised that we will shut off all temporary heat going to this building, and I am sure that nature, through its cold weather, will completely destroy any portion of the building through frost that you might be able to salvage," the casino tycoon warned.

One day after Kupchella received the letter, the Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 to retain the nickname.

In the wake of the furor over Engelstad’s letter, Kupchella reportedly urged the University Senate, composed of UND faculty, to reiterate its support for changing the nickname to assist the president in persuading the state board to consider phasing out the name.

The faculty organization overwhelmingly supported the change, but Kupchella immediately denied supporting such a move after his alleged comments were contested by Larry Isaak, chancellor of the North Dakota State University System. UND spokesman Johnson said Kupchella’s words had been misrepresented by the Grand Forks Herald.

"It seems to have been a misreported situation," Johnson said. "What the president had said was he wanted to come up with a plan for strengthening the Native American programs at the university."

In 1999, the Student Senate narrowly approved a resolution supporting a name change, but the measure was vetoed by then student president Jonathan Sickler.

It is uncertain what effect, if any, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission opinion will have on state officials, but if the Board of Higher Education fails to reverse its decision, student activists are likely to again bring the issue before the state legislature, which voted down a name change by a 3-1 margin in 1999. However, the North Dakota legislature perennially rejects the creation of a state human rights commission, despite a 1999 recommendation by the federal civil rights body and an offer by Three Affiliated Tribes chairman Tex Hall to foot half the bill.

What is certain is that this is an issue unlikely to fade away without resolution. UND students Wastewin Young, Anne Barthel and Richard Schmucker will soon go to trial on charges of disorderly conduct for blocking a road in an Oct. 16 protest against the Fighting Sioux name. The UND three were the first to be arrested in a campus protest since George Whirlwind Soldier was held on three counts of assault and battery after a fight broke out in 1972 between Native students and members of the Sigma Nu fraternity, some of whom had erected an ice sculpture of a topless indigenous woman emblazoned with the honorific phrase "Lik em Sioux."

The university also faces at least two complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that UND’s actions have created a hostile educational environment for indigenous students--complaints backed up by allegations of death threats and vandalism against Natives who publicly demand that an institution of higher learning prioritize basic human decency over the fanatical dictates of a goose-stepping Las Vegas billionaire.