"Fighting Sioux" Name Sees New Advocate in Protest:
Thirty Years of Conflict and Still No Resolution

By Serenity J. Banks
Lakota Journal Managing Editor

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The "Fighting Sioux" nickname of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has been challenged and opposed for 30 years and still retains its position in the school's tradition.

Now the 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."

One way the team proposed in approaching this issue is by "requesting the State Board to invest trust in the institution to bring together people of good will on both sides of the issue to begin a dialogue to address the historic basis for their feelings."

"All would have to agree that there may be no perfect solution and that the solution is a continual process of introspection, trust, and compromise to create an inclusive community that understands and appreciates the historic continuity of the symbols in the seal of the University of North Dakota and how they relate to the cultures that inhabited the territory at the founding of the institution," the report states.

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.

From the moment the current Fighting Sioux logo was unveiled, it met with opposition and outrage. The UND campus newspaper, called Dakota Student, reported that an "impromptu protest" broke out as soon as the Indianhead logo was revealed, with about ten students getting up and walking out of the presentation.

Wambdi Wastewin, assistant director and supervisor for Upward Bound, initiated the protest by reportedly pointing directly at Kupchella and saying, "Shame on you for mocking my people in this way."

The new logo-which incidentally was created by a Native American artist-was criticized for its similarity to the "Blackhawk" logo, which resembled that of the Cleveland Indians. In response to the immediate protests, Kupchella created a commission of 16 members to examine the use of the Fighting Sioux name and emphasized that he-not the commission-would have the final say.

The Fighting Sioux issue was not restricted to the UND campus. In February 1999, when Dr. Kendall Baker was still UND President, Clarence W. Skye of the United Sioux Tribes Development Corporation set off a string of letters from several tribal council members after writing a letter to Baker which suggested that the various Sioux tribes did not object to the team name, saying they didn't "really see a problem with the name Sioux being attached to the University of North Dakota."

Within days, letters were written from the different tribes disagreeing with Skye's statement and resolutions were signed to urge UND to change the nickname.

Chairman Charles W. Murphy of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wrote, "Mr. Clarence Skye has led some to believe that the Sioux nickname is not opposed by Sioux tribes in South Dakota. Please understand that this is first of all not true, and secondly, Mr. Clarence Skye does not speak for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on this matter."

Letters from other tribes echoed this sentiment along with various strongly-worded appeals to respect the Sioux tribes and change the school's mascot.

Former Chairman Andrew Grey Sr. of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe wrote, "Use of a race of people as a nickname or mascot is totally unacceptable and only leads to the dehumanization of their being, culture, history, and children. Only when one is in this situation can you truly understand the full impact of such demeaning and dehumanizing behavior. What do we tell our beautiful children when they are subjected to such acts either personally or when they have to read or hear about their ancestors as nicknames or mascots and not humans?"

Harold D. Salway, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe wrote, "As we enter a new century there isn't any justifiable reason to continue to dehumanize a race of people."

Former President Norman G. Wilson of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe wrote, "I am saddened and deeply concerned about the continued use of the 'Fighting Sioux' as it mimics and shows complete disrespect for the Sioux Tribe. The reason is obvious and clear. This practice of using the 'Fighting Sioux' shows the complete lack of acknowledgement of this indigenous race of people. Our people have a beautiful history, culture, and legacy that should not be subject to such demeaning acts for any reason, at any time. I might add that one act is too many and warrants the immediate elimination of the 'Fighting Sioux' nickname at the University of North Dakota."

Gregg J. Bourland, former chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe wrote, "Humanity has come a long way in the last one hundred years. Institutes of higher learning have helped to make that happen. The use of Native Americans (putting us in the same class as animals) is one of the last barriers facing colleges and universities to a real fulfillment of higher learning."

A month later, in March of 1999, a UND student named Holly Annis contributed an article to the North Dakota High Plains Reader that explained the history of the Fighting Sioux name and its controversy.

Before the year 1930, UND teams were known as the "Flickertails," named after the common ground squirrel, or prairie dog-also known as the "unofficial North Dakota mammal." Professor Emeritus Alvin E. Austin was responsible for the name-change. He wrote two letters to the editor and two editorials in the campus newspaper in September 1930 that sparked the inspiration for the Fighting Sioux.

The rationale laid out in the Dakota Student involved the rivalry between UND and its competitor, North Dakota State University, which had the "Mighty Bison" as its team name. This led to the reasoning, "Sioux are a good exterminating agent for the Bison; they are warlike, of fine physique and bearing; and the word Sioux is easily rhymed for yells and songs," according to Annis.

A week after the letters were printed, the Athletic Board of Control turned the Flickertails into the Fighting Sioux "without apparent input from American Indian people or UND alumni," Annis said.

She said that in 1969, the University of North Dakota Indian Association (UNDIA) was formed to protest the name and the school's mascot, Sammy the Sioux. In 1971 the Indian Studies program began with two classes and Sammy the Sioux was eliminated, although the use of the Fighting Sioux logo and symbol stayed.

In February 1972, an outdoor carnival was held in which several fraternities and sororities created offensive Indian-themed ice sculptures. Annis said UNDIA requested twice that the sculptures be removed; when no action was taken, several Indian students, UNDIA members, and American Indian Movement members destroyed the sculptures. After the incident, the Dakota Student quoted UND Greek community members with statements such as "Better dead than red" and "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Annis said the protests against the Fighting Sioux name continued over the years. Eventually a group called Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) was formed, which later changed its name to Building Roads Into Diverse Groups Empowering Students (BRIDGES). BRIDGES is still in effect to date, and remains as a student organization committed to "fighting racism and the systems which make it possible."

The introductory statement on the BRIDGES website states, "Many students see the name being used in a respectful manner. BRIDGES understands that using any ethnic group as a moniker for a sports team is not respectful-it is exploitive and leads to dangerous stereotypes and, subsequently, racism. BRIDGES disagrees with the assumption that an issue like this can simply be put to a popular vote; the rights of a minority are rarely protected by an indifferent majority. This issue is one of human rights."

In 1993, Annis said, the University Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking that the name be changed. Then-President Baker announced that the name would not be changed because of the "great feeling of pride and tradition."

"The real issue was the need for more education about diverse cultures, using the royalties from the sanctioned logo to fund scholarships for Native American students, cultural programming at athletic events and assistance for various UND Native American organizations," Annis wrote. "The logo fund, deemed blood money by the campus Native American newspaper, was offered to several different Native American programs across campus. All of these programs declined the money."

Annis said there was no evidence that any presentations were taking place across campus regarding the proper, respectful use of the team name-only a "disclaimer read at the beginning of every athletic event proclaiming the proud use of Fighting Sioux."

Incidents of derogatory behavior continued-including racially motivated acts of violence, harassment, hate mail, and death threats-but the Fighting Sioux name still stands.

"American Indian students at the University of North Dakota have been protesting the use of Fighting Sioux for 30 years," Annis said. "Thirty years of perpetuating archaic stereotypes of Native people. Thirty years of educational forums. Thirty years of telling us to be honored."

In March 2000, the Alumni Review explored the criticism the new UND President Kupchella was experiencing due to the enduring nickname. The article, written by Brenda Ling and Michelle Midstokke, defended Kupchella and the moniker.

"The Sioux name was praised by many for its historical significance," the article stated. "The name gave the UND athletic teams an image of strength, bravery, and perseverance. For almost seven decades, the UND Fighting Sioux stood as a source of pride."

These views were expressed despite the consistent protests over the years that proclaimed the nickname was offensive, racist, and disrespectful. The article also quoted UND graduates who praised the name and criticized its opponents.

"What would be accomplished if the few Indians who feel that the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname is demeaning to them should be successful in changing the name of UND's sports teams?" said Francis Foughty, a former American Indian student and UND football player. "It might inflate the ego of those few Indians and non-Indians who are complaining about the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, but it would be at a cost of tremendous damage to Indian and non-Indian relations."

Foughty was quoted as saying that American Indians who oppose the nickname "are ashamed of their heritage and want the world to forget the mighty Sioux ever existed."

Dakota Student News Editor Jeff Achen printed an editorial in January 2001 addressing the issue. He praised the "fairness and discretion with which Charles Kupchella has handled this whole ordeal" and said, "Our sincere love and affection for the Sioux name has always been honorable in practice and intent; however, it is that level of devotion that enables us to ignore the plight of those hurt because of it."

Achen defined the unrealistic image the Fighting Sioux nickname provided as "the root of our stereotypes and prejudices, the image of the Native American with drinking or financial problems," which allows the majority "to continue the stereotypes."

"Change must come to the Native American community as much as it must come to our own, but Native Americans are not honored in mascots and nicknames and they are not dishonored by their problems," Achen said. "Our job today is to proactively help, more than ever, the Native American community around us to grow and prosper. We will do that through Native American programs, a continued quest for cultural understanding, and most of all, by quieting the lingering whispers of racism within each of us. Then we, the whole of North Dakota, can at last speak of honor."

In October 2003, a professor of journalism from the University of Texas at Austin named Robert Jensen spoke at UND on behalf of BRIDGES. His speech was entitled "The Past and Human Dignity: What the 'Fighting Sioux' Tells Us About Whites," and he discussed the historical cultural issues that are imitated within the conflict over the team name.

"Appeals to the dominant white society to abolish the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo typically are framed in terms of respect for the dignity and humanity of indigenous people," Jensen said. "That is the appropriate way to address the question, but it has failed-at least in North Dakota-to persuade most white folks."

He suggested that in order to affirm the humanity in people of European descent, those people must acknowledge the humanity of indigenous people.

"I say this because I believe that we give up our dignity when we evade the truth, and we surrender our humanity when we hold onto illegitimate power over others," he said. "And I want to argue that is what the nickname controversy is really about-white America refusing to come to terms with the truth about the invasion and conquest of North America and refusing to acknowledge the fundamental illegitimacy of its power over indigenous people as a result of that conquest."

Jensen referenced the history of the white conquest as grounds for his argument.

"It's history, they say," he said. "Get over it-don't get stuck in the past. But this advice to forget history is selective; many of the same folks who tell indigenous people not to get stuck in the past are also demanding that schoolchildren get more instruction in the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers. The question isn't whether we should pay more attention to history. The relevant questions are who gets to write history? From whose point of view is history written? Which historical realities are emphasized and which are ignored?"

He also discussed the historical attitude the European settlers took toward the indigenous people they discovered in America.

"Were those indigenous peoples really people in the eyes of the invaders?" Jensen said. "Were they full human beings?"

He referenced the Declaration of Independence, which referred to Indians as "merciless Indian savages," and a quote from Theodore Roosevelt in which the former president said the conquest of whites was "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

"Among Jefferson's 'savages' and Roosevelt's 'barbarians' were the fighting Sioux," Jensen said. "The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, the people who lived in what we now call North Dakota. The American holocaust perpetrated by Europeans and their descendents against indigenous people cannot be undone. But we can in the present work to change the consequences of that holocaust. One easy place to start could be eliminating a nickname and logo to which a significant number of Indians object. All that white people would have to do is accept that simple fact, and change the name and logo. It would cost no one anything, beyond the trivial expense of changing the design on some stationery, uniforms, and university trinkets."

Jensen believes there is a simple subconscious motivation behind the mainstream's objection to changing the name of the Fighting Sioux.

"A power dynamic is at the core of white resistance to the simple act of dropping nicknames such as Fighting Sioux," he said. "Indians don't get to tell white people what to do. Why not? Polite white people won't say it in public, but this is what I think many white people think: 'Whites won and Indians lost. It's our country now. Maybe the way we took it was wrong, but we took it. So get used to it. You don't get to tell us what to do.'"

He believes this power dynamic is responsible for the reluctance to let the American Indian protestors win the conflict over the nickname.

"In this case, the argument for white people giving Indians that power is intensified by the magnitude of evil perpetrated by whites on Indians," he said. "To acknowledge all that is to acknowledge that the American nation is based on genocide, on a crime against humanity. The land of the free and the home of the brave, the nation that was born as the vehicle for a new freedom, rests on the denial not only of freedom, but of life itself, to a whole group of people."

Jensen compared the current mascot situation in America to a hypothetical world in which Nazi Germany would have won World War II and began using the "Fighting Jews" as a team name. He then spoke on the common view that the use of the nickname is perpetuated based on tradition.

"Can tradition, the common argument for keeping the Fighting Sioux, trump other considerations?" he said. "Indeed, tradition makes some people (mostly whites) feel good. Does that value to some outweigh the injury to others? Many traditions have fallen by the wayside over time when it became clear that the tradition imposed a cost on some other person or group."

Jensen believes the decision regarding the end of the Fighting Sioux should be the responsibility of American Indian people only.

"We cannot steal the dignity and humanity of indigenous people," he said. "We can steal their resources, disrespect them, insult them, ignore them, and continue to repress their legitimate aspirations. We can try to distort their own sense of themselves, but in the end we can't take their humanity from them."

But despite the 30 years of outspoken protest, to date the university is still known by its unpopular nickname-and people are still fighting it.

Frank Sage (Navajo) is a member of BRIDGES and one of the people still opposed to the usage of the name and logo. "NCA can only make a recommendation," he said. "That is why the university has just been sitting on the recommendation. The university is making profit off a living human culture of Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people. Not a cent is given back to the people. Instead the president [Kupchella] brags about the 18 Indian-related programs-which [the university] only houses. The programs are federally-funded."

Sage believes organizations like the NCA need to develop enforcement procedures in order to make changes like the one he believes is needed at UND.

"If NCA had any backbone they would not just make recommendation and bargain with the university," he said. "They could enforce some real meaningful change. Meanwhile, the Native American student will have to suck it up and deal with it."

He believes there is an end in sight, but it will be a long time in coming.

"In time it will happen," he said. "If the legislators, government, and educators would have been doing their real job, this would not be debated today. Instead they voted toward the money."

As far as the Fighting Sioux supporters' claim that the nickname is meant to honor the tribes, Sage said, "The school is not honoring the tribal resolutions, so where is the honor?"


For more information on how to support the termination of the Fighting Sioux name and logo or to view the tribal resolutions in full, visit the BRIDGES website at www.und.nodak.edu/org/bridges or email at natived@sage.und.nodak.edu. For more information on NCA visit the main Chicago organization's site at www.ncacihe.org.

(This article appears courtesy of the Lakota Journal and Serenity Banks)