GRAND FORKS, N.D. – ‘I’m a human being, not a mascot!’ read a placard carried by a young Lakota Indian here Oct. 5. She was protesting the ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname of University of North Dakota (UND) sports teams and a hockey arena plastered with thousands of reproductions of an Indian-head logo.
The 350 demonstrators – UND students and faculty and members of several American Indian tribes – gathered in front of the new $100-million Ralph Engelstad Arena on the day it opened.
Starting in the 1970s, and increasingly in recent years, hundreds of schools and colleges have shed Indian names and logos in recognition of their racist nature.
In the case of the ‘Fighting Sioux,’ several tribal councils formally requested the University of North Dakota to drop it. Unfortunately, some UND fans defended its use as ‘tradition,’ and others feared lost alumni contributions.
Enter Ralph Engelstad, a UND alumnus with a gambling fortune. A public admirer of Hitler and a collector of Nazi memorabilia; he was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission for celebrating Hitler’s birthday at two parties in his casino at which employees were required to wear Hitler T-shirts. He operates a non-union hotel and has been the focus of protests by Jewish groups in Las Vegas.
Engelstad offered a $100-million gift to his alma mater, originally half for a hockey arena and half to the university for its unrestricted use. Terms of the gift were subsequently changed, however. First, Engelstad imposed the condition that the ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname and logo of an Indian head be retained, and second, that the lavish arena receive all the funds.
The university unveiled a statue of a mounted Indian bearing a plaque noting that it commemorates Sitting Bull.
This was done despite the fact that Isaac Dog Eagle, a descendant of Sitting Bull and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal government, had written to the university objecting and pointing out that the university did not receive, or even seek, permission to use Sitting Bull’s likeness or name.
Preceding the arena protest was a three-day Northern Plains Conference on American Indian Team Names and Logos, attended by 400 people. The purpose of the conference was to place the use of Indian names and nicknames, as well as Indian figures and images, in a social and political context.
Conference speakers and panels, including academics, Indian spiritual leaders, and tribal members addressed such topics as the psychological impact of American Indian logos and mascots on Native and non-Native people.
The keynote speaker was Winona LaDuke, a longtime activist who heads the White Earth Land Recovery Project, working to return Indian lands to the tribe.
Another speaker was Charlene Teters, professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., a leader in the national movement against Indian mascots. She became an activist when, as one of two Indian students at the University of Illinois, she was confronted with the degrading caricature ‘Chief Illiniwek.’
The campaign that grew up after her initial protest provoked harassment and even death threats in reaction. PBS did a documentary on Teters entitled In Whose Honor?
While there is no resolution at Illinois, the universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa now refuse to schedule teams with Indian logos except when required by Big Ten regulations. Other colleges are not permitting visiting teams to display Indian names and symbols on jerseys or athletic gear.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has called for the elimination of Indian mascots, logos and team names by educational institutions on the grounds that they are offensive to American Indians, and may create a hostile learning environment in violation of antidiscrimination laws.
The Commission said that ‘they are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.’