University of North Dakota Indian Mascot Receives a Reprieve

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Category: Sports & Law

siouxDefenders of the University of North Dakota’s use of the “Fighting Sioux” as the nickname for its athletic teams (in use since 1930) received a reprieve this week when the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, responding to events on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, granted the University a month-long extension for the use of its current nickname.  Now the University has until October 31 to obtain the approval of the North Dakota-based Sioux for its continued use of the name.

In 2005, the NCAA indentified the University of North Dakota as one of eighteen member colleges and universities that used racially offensive Native-American-themed nicknames for their athletic teams.  After considerable wrangling with the University, the NCAA ruled that if the University chose to continue the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, mascot, and logo, it would suffer a number of penalties, including a prohibition against hosting NCAA post-season events.  At the same time, the University’s efforts to move from Division II to Division I were frustrated by the refusal of the Summit League (an NCAA Division I conference which included North Dakota State and South Dakota State and which had previously shown great interest in adding North Dakota as its twelfth member) to act upon its application until the matter of the nickname was resolved.

The issue was further complicated by the decision to imbed the Fighting Sioux logo into the structure of the University’s lavish Ralph Englestad Arena.

The Englestad Arena, primarily an ice hockey and winter sport facility, was constructed during the controversy, and the pro-Fighting Sioux mascot builders placed the logos in such a way that it would be almost impossible to remove them without significantly damaging the building.

When the University refused to budge on the nickname issue, the NCAA brought suit.  In October 2007, the two parties settled the suit with an agreement that the University would change its nickname and logo unless it could secure the approval of both of the state Sioux tribes (the Dakota and the Lakota) for the continued use of the logos for at least thirty more years.  This settlement was similar to the one reached in Florida under which the Seminole Tribe authorized the continued use of the Seminole nickname by Florida State University.  Under the terms of the settlement, the school had until February 2010 to secure the permission of the two tribes.

The settlement triggered an intense campaign on the part of the University and most white North Dakotans to convince the state’s Native-Americans that it was in their interest to support the continued use of the Fighting Sioux name and mascot.  While many seemed to be favorably disposed to the idea anyway, other complained of what they viewed as unfair, and racially tinged, pressure.

The Sioux population of North Dakota primarily resides on two reservations, Standing Rock and Spirit Lake.  On April 22, 2009, the Spirit Lake Sioux voted in a non-binding referendum to support the perpetual use of the name by a vote of 774-378. The magnitude of the vote convinced the Spirit Lake Tribal Council to endorse the University’s position.

However, on the Standing Rock Reservation, the tribal leadership voted not to support the continued use.  Although there was reportedly strong support for the nickname among the rank and file Standing Rock Sioux, Standing Rock tribal chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder, an outspoken opponent of the mascot and nickname, refused to allow a referendum on the issue.

As racial tensions increased in the face of the resistance of the Standing Rock leadership, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education decided to intervene.  Ostensibly concerned about the University’s Summit League application, on May 14, the Board voted 8-0 to order the University to cease using the Fighting Sioux name and logo after October 1 unless it had secured the support of both reservations by that date.  (Presumably, if the University chose to resist this directive, it would face the cutoff of state funds.)  The effect of the Board edict was to shorten the period in which tribal approval could be obtained by four months.

Although His Horse is Thunder and his supporters showed no signs of backing down, the chairman and several of  his allies on the tribal council faced reelection in July 2009.  Among those challenging His Horse is Thunder for the position of chairman was Charles Murphy, a Fighting Sioux supporter and a former tribal chairman. 

In the July 17 primary Murphy significantly bested His Horse is Thunder, receiving 567 votes to 223 for the incumbent.  (In fact, His Horse is Thunder finished only two votes ahead of the third place finisher, Avis Little Eagle.)  However, because Murphy did not receive an absolute majority of the votes cast, he and His Horse is Thunder squared off on September 30 in the run-off in a campaign that focused on the mascot and nickname issue.  On what appeared to be the next-to-last day for the Fighting Sioux mascot, Murphy soundly defeated his opponent for the tribal chairmanship by a convincing margin of 64 to 36 percent.  In addition to Murphy, several new tribal council members were elected, but where each of these stands on the mascot question is not entirely clear.  Murphy and his newly elected colleagues do not take office until October 14.

The following day, the magnitude of Murphy’s victory prompted the State Board of Higher Education by a 6-1 vote with one abstention to give the University an additional month to resolve the issue.  A further extension will be granted if the Standing Rock Reservation schedules a referendum on the issue, so long as the referendum is held before the end of November.

Although there is no guarantee that the tribal council will agree to a referendum or that it will reverse its position on the nickname even if the results of the referendum are favorable to the University, Murphy’s large majority certainly improves the chances that the Fighting Sioux mascot will survive.

So far, no one has suggested that the University of North Dakota borrow a page from the book of Wisconsin’s Carthage College, one of the eighteen schools on the 2005 NCAA list.  Previously known as the Redmen (a synonym for Indians), Carthage changed its nickname to the Red Men (apparently a reference to men that are painted red, or possibly to devils or Communists).  If the University of North Dakota ultimately has to give up the Fighting Sioux name, perhaps it should, with a tip of the hat to Johnny Cash, Shel Silverstein, and Title IX, change the name of its athletic teams to the University of North Dakota Fighting Sues.  Stranger things have happened.

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5 Responses to “University of North Dakota Indian Mascot Receives a Reprieve”

  1. J. Gordon Hylton Says:

    I am not sure of the etiquette of posting the first comment to one’s own blog entry, but I did want to add the observation that a new principle appears to be emerging after the now several-decade-long controversy over Native American team names in college athletics.

    The primary objection to the Native American names is that they appear to have been chosen for the same reason that teams are named after ferocious animals (lions, tigers, wolverines, etc.). Like their animal counterparts Indians were imagined to be ferocious fighters willing to make any sacrifice to achieve their goals.

    Consequently, such naming practices came to be viewed by many Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike as demeaning and implying that Native Americans were extremely primitive and possibly sub-human.

    As a result of the NCAA campaign to eliminate such practices, generic names like Indians, Redmen, Redskins, Chiefs, Savages, and Braves have largely disappeared from the ranks of college team names. (UNC-Pembroke was granted an exemption and permitted to use the name Braves because the school itself was created during the Jim Crow era as a college exclusively for Native American students.)

    However, when the nickname refers to a specific tribe, particularly one associated with the same geographic area as the university, the implications are not necessarily demeaning and the use of name is not automatically prohibited.

    The name Indian implies that all Native Americans are the same. In contrast, nicknames like Chippewas, Seminoles, and Sioux implicitly point to the existence of tribal distinctions. Presumably, those names are chosen because of more positive (and more human) aspects of the tribe and are thus comparable to “Fighting Irish,” “Orangemen,” “Flying Dutchmen” or “Raging Cajuns” which are nicknames that apparently do not offend Irish-Americans, Dutch-Americans, or Cajuns. Consequently, such imagery is not necessarily “hostile or abusive,” to Native Americans (to deploy the terminology used by the NCAA).

    The new principle is that while it is inappropriate to use a generic Native American team nickname, it is permissible to use a specific tribal nickname, so long as the permission of the tribe is obtained. Hence the continuation with NCAA approval of the Florida State Seminoles, the Central Michigan University Chippewas, and the University of Utah Utes. The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux may well be added to this list.

    It is not always obvious what is a Native American name and what is not. The University of Illinois has long insisted that its nickname “Illini” refers not to the members of the Native American Illiniwek Confederacy that lived in Illinois prior to their relocation to Oklahoma in the 19th century, but to residents of the state of all races. The NCAA has accepted this explanation, but required the elimination of the school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who was portrayed by a caucasian student dressed in the garb of the Lakota Sioux. In addition to his historical inaccuracy, Chief Illiniwek was also denounced as offensive in 2002 by the leadership of the Peoria Tribe, one of the groups that made up the Illiniwek Confedercy.

    For what it is worth, there is no NCAA-imposed impediment to a school calling its teams the “Warriors,” so long as the name is not coupled with a mascot posing as a native American. Had Marquette simply dropped its Native American mascot in the early 1990’s, there would have been no objection to its keeping the name Warriors.

  2. Mark Kapocius Says:

    Prof. Hylton,

    Thanks for your excellent research on the matter. What I found interesting about your initial post was the efforts on the part of Standing Rock tribal chairman to prevent a vote. Perhaps he realized that everytime there is an opportunity for Native Americans to weigh in on the matter, there is general support for the use of Indian mascots and names (see Seminoles, Chippewas, Pembroke). Further, a Peter Harris poll in 2002 showed that over 80% of Native Americans approved of the Washington Redskins (arguably the most “hostile or abusive” to borrow the NCAA’s language). Perhaps the NCAA has finally struck a balance on this issue with the permission-rule. Marquette, by this standard, was way ahead of its time. Hank Raymonds, the former assistant coach, head coach, and athletic director sought, and obtained, permission from the Wisconsin tribes nearly 30 years ago for MU to be called the Warriors. I’ll be interested to see how the NCAA plans to deal with obtaining permission from Irish-Americans over the use of the Fightin’ Irish imagery.

  3. A fascinating and thoughtful article. Since I have Danish and Swedish ancestry, I wonder when I will be polled about the use of “Vikings?”

  4. Thomas Baranski Says:

    First and foremost is the question of why is the NCAA allowed to dictate to any school what its Mascot’s name should be??? It has become a Monopoly and as such should be shut down. SECOND, if the Fighting Sioux name is not allowed to stand, the University needs to adopt one of two name: “A BOY NAMED SUE” or “SUE ME.” The first already has a school song to go with it and the second would be a finger in the eye of the NCAA. Of course,you could always go the same way as the Chicago, Milwaukee,and Sault Saint Marie Railroad and call yourselves the SOO (as in Soo Line) and use the U of Ark call “sooie, pig.” As an alumni of the University of Illionis who watched as that school gave in to the NCAA and gave up their “Fighting Illini” name, I no longer tell anyone that I graduated from there and I definately do not give them any money.

  5. Gordon Hylton Says:

    I plan to post shortly an update on subsequent events in North Dakota where the university has agreed to relinquish the nickname, but a group of Native-Americans continue to lobby the NCAA and the state to reinstate the Fighting Sioux name and logo.

    In response to Prof. Baranski’s objection to NCAA demands that schools abandon certain nicknames, one could argue that the NCAA is really just a private sports league (like MLB or the NFL) and that it should be free to impose any naming guidelines that it members support. After all, the University of Illinois and the University of North Dakota could simply withdraw from the NCAA and play an independent schedule under any nickname they wanted.

    Of course, as a practical matter, the college sports industry has developed to a point where withdrawal from the NCAA would be “suicidal” for any university hoping to have a “big time” sports program, just as it would “impossible” for a football team to withdraw from the NFL and go it alone or try to start a new league.

    The real problem, I think, is that our competition/antitrust law does not know how to deal with monopoly sports leagues. On the one hand, sports fans decry the idea of direct governmental oversight of the sports industry, but they complain with equal vehemence when a league uses its monopoly power to adopt policies (like the rule on Indian names) that they do not like.

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