The UND Fighting Sioux:
Building Understanding and Respect or Showing Disrespect and Insensitivity?

By Brenda Ling and Michelle Midstokke
(from Alumni Review, March/April 2000)

The University of North Dakota's 70-year tradition of using the Fighting Sioux name for its athletic teams has again come under fire. Vocal opposition has come from a group made up primarily of UND faculty and students.

The controversy, which has erupted at various times during the past 30 years, is again a news item. It last surfaced in the early 1990s during the administration of former UND President Kendall Baker. The University's 10th president, Charles Kupchella, has inherited this issue.

American Indian identification has always been a part of the University's history, in Dacotah yearbooks, pageants, and other events. It also has played a strong role in North Dakota's history. UND Professor of Indian Studies Mary Jane Schneider wrote in her book, North Dakota's Indian Heritage, "Some ideas of the magnitude of Indian contributions to North Dakota history and culture can be gained by trying to imagine North Dakota influences: no names, no logos, no highways 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 Indian heritage, North Dakota would not be the same."

At North Dakota's oldest institution of higher learning, UND's teams were known for many years as the "Flickertails" and the "Nodaks".

"Flickertails" didn't go well. It conjured an image of "a useless little rodent that farmers in an agricultural state wish to be rid of". "Nodaks" suffered the same fate, which "could be connected with nothing but the name itself."

In 1930, the Sioux name was recommended. It gained tremendous approval from the students, as well as faculty and staff members. Arts and Sciences dean William G. Bek, alumni secretary Frank Webb, and football coach C.A. West publicly gave their approval.

The Sioux name was praised by many for its historical significance as UND is located on land once dominated by the great Sioux Nation. The name gave the UND athletic teams an image of strength, bravery and perseverance.

The greatest objection expressed during the name adoption discussion came from Fred Traynor, president of the UND Alumni Association. He wrote in a letter to Webb, "It seems to me there is already too much of a notion abroad, especially in the East, that we are still Indian territory, and that there isn't much else in this state except wigwams and we all go around with war paint on our faces and feathers in our hair." Traynor liked "Flickertails", because he said it projected the image of quick action and thinking, as well as resourcefulness.

For almost seven decades, the UND Fighting Sioux stood as a source of pride, especially with the winning tradition of UND athletic teams. The song, "The Fighting Sioux" was commissioned and is still in use today.

In 1969, a band of Sioux Indians from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation formally gave UND the right to use the name Fighting Sioux for its athletic teams. Then-UND president George Starcher was given the name "Yankton Chief" in a ceremony at the University, according to the Grand Forks Herald. He pledged to help the Indian citizens meet their educational needs and urged more Sioux Indians to attend UND.

The question of the appropriateness of using the Fighting Sioux name surfaced at UND during the 1970s.

According to an article written by Dave Vorland, assistant to the president at UND, the 1970s were a time of great social change. "On the national level, tribes across the country, buttressed by favorable court decisions and ideas of the Civil Rights Movement, began asserting their rights of self-determination after decades of control by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," he wrote in his report, The Fighting Sioux Team Name and Logo at the University of North Dakota. New activist Indian organizations such as the American Indian Movement also emerged during this time period.

Vorland wrote, "Until the coming of the federal "Great Society" programs in the 1960s, very few Native American students had ever enrolled at UND." Programs such as "Teacher Corps" brought large numbers of American Indian students to campus.

Today, approximately 350 Native American students are enrolled at UND.

With more than 75 supportive programs and initiatives on campus, UND provides one of the largest variety of opportunities for American Indian students in the United States and has become a national leader in Indian education.

Nonetheless, the question remains. Is it appropriate for UND to use the Fighting Sioux nickname and a related logo for identification of its athletic teams?

The issue has divided students, faculty, staff, as well as Native Americans.

Bob Primeaux, '80, and a member of the Standing Rock tribe, said he approves of the name and logo. Primeaux, who grew up in Fort Yates, said UND is showing respect and commitment to Indian people by helping them, not ignoring them.

"Being a UND graduate, I want to use UND as a resource for the betterment of Indian people, and hope that, in turn, UND uses me as a resource for students," said Primeaux, who now lives in California.

"If it weren't for some of the Indian programs UND offers, I wouldn't have earned my degree," he said. Primeaux listed a number of programs UND provides for American Indians, such as developing a law program, helping to improve the drinking water on reservation, and helping with treaty rights.

Francis "Frank" Foughty, '47, '49, asked, "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?

"It might inflate the ego of those few Indians and non-Indians who are complaining about the use of the Fighting Sioux name, but it would be at a cost of tremendous damage to Indian and non-Indian relations," said the Devils Lake, N.D., attorney and former UND football player.

Foughty, an American Indian, said the adoption of the Sioux name is a sign of respect for the people of the Sioux name is a sign of respect for the people of the Sioux Nation, who once dominated the Northern Plains.

"One interpretation of the actions by the group of 50-60 students and faculty who want to eliminate the name is that they are ashamed of their heritage and want the world to forget the mighty Sioux ever existed. I am very proud of my Indian heritage," he said.

But other Native Americans see it differently.

In an open letter to University of North Dakota President Charles Kupchella, Leigh Jeanotte, '72, '74, '81, said the unveiling of the new symbol in November was a step back for the University. "My heartfelt belief is that the use of the name and logo are dehumanizing," wrote Jeanotte, director of UND's Native American Programs. He also added that with the re-emergence of the explosive issue, the campus environment has become increasingly hostile and frightening for American Indian students.

"I truly believe that UND, through its outstanding and unique American Indian-related programs, is helping to build stronger communities and a more promising future for the people growing up and growing old within these communities. Each semester, increasing numbers of American Indian students graduate from UND, often taking their skills home to reservation communities."

However, with recent events, "Many of the American Indian students have been consumed by the resurgence of the logo/team name, the secrecy surrounding it and the insensitivity of the administration to proceed with such an unveiling in spite of the pain it is causing," Jeanotte wrote.

In a letter to the UND Alumni Association, Ira W. Taken Alive, a former UND student and a member of the Standing Rock tribe, said he is perplexed by the University's notion to "honor" his ancestors and himself with the Fighting Sioux name and logos. He said it is a sign or insensitivity, disrespect and ignorance.

Public opinion among the student body is in favor of retaining the name. According to Vorland's article, "In the spring of 1999, after UND Student Senate adopted a resolution advocating a name change (vetoed by student body president), student government commission a scientific survey by the Bureau of Governmental Affairs. It indicated that 83.4 percent of the student body were either "strongly oppose" or "opposed" to changing the name."

In the past, informal surveys of alumni show a strong support for keeping the name and logo.

However, surveys have found that America Indian student approval for use of the term Fighting Sioux has dropped. According to Vorland, "In November 1995, a "campus climate" sample survey of students measured responses to the statement, "UND's use of the Sioux name/logo is culturally insensitive." Some 79.1 percent disagreed with that statement, while just 29.6 percent of Native American disagreed.

Since the unveiling of the new logo and subsequent protests, Kupchella has created a 16-member commission to examine UND's use of the name Fighting Sioux for its athletic teams. The commission includes both on- and off-campus representatives.

Kupchella said he, not the commission, will make the ultimate decision.