North Dakota Primary Results: 'Fighting Sioux' Mascot Offensive to Native Americans Rejected by Voters

ByLawrence Sampson

UPDATE: Voters overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to abolish the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and Indian head logo. More than 67 percent of voters supported the move that will allow the University of North Dakota to end its use of the nickname and logo. 

Over time, America has undergone a transformation in its attitudes toward American Indians: As being Native became less objectionable and more fashionable, those who would exploit or appropriate cultural icons and practices took advantage of the "coolness" of American Indians, and sought to use various aspects of our culture to their own ends. 

One of the most distasteful practices was eventually institutionalized and became entrenched in the world of sports. American Indian people began to be depicted in various ways, almost always inaccurately, as sports mascots. Hundreds of colleges and several professional teams in all sports appropriated the appearance of America’s Indigenous people, once they were safely seen as defeated people. First they tried to kill us off, and then they tried to take ownership of our imagery.

As American Indian people slowly, but loudly began to oppose these mascots, one of the most parroted excuses for using them was but we’re honoring you.” Webster’s defines "honor," among other things, as “a showing of usually merited respect.” One of the funniest or strangest aspects of this claim of honoring, depending on your viewpoint, is the reaction to Indian people when they speak out about mascots. 

When American Indian graduate student Charlene Teeters spoke out and protested against the University of Illinois’ “chief Illiniwek” mascot, she was insulted, spit on, and had garbage thrown at her. The first years of the effort to eradicate the U of I mascot was depicted in the documentary In Whose Honor? I have attended protests in Cleveland Ohio against their baseball team (Cleveland Indians), and Washington D.C. against the football team (Washington Redskins) mascot that represents perhaps the absolute worst example of all of these. As a group, we Indians were threatened, demeaned, spit on, insulted, and in general just dismissed. Some people are so busy "honoring" us they don’t even want to hear what we have to say.

 Times have slowly, but surely changed. Virtually every single American Indian organization with a national scope has condemned and opposed the use of race- based mascots. The NAACP has officially denounced and opposes race based mascots. Dartmouth (Webster’s alma mater) changed its Redmen mascot, Stanford dropped its Indian years ago, and several other colleges followed suit. It would seem common sense has started to prevail. And yet there are some holdouts. 

In North Dakota, people went to the polls on June 12 to vote whether to retire the “Fighting Sioux” mascot. However that vote turns out, it may be a temporary decision. A group called the Committee for Understanding and Respect has been circulating petitions for a second referendum that would change the state constitution to declare the University of North Dakota (UND) forever be known as the Fighting Sioux. In years past, supporters of this mascot have produced t-shirts with what appears to be an Indian having sex with a buffalo. Nothing helps make your point like a little sexual marginalization.

All of this requires a bit of a history lesson.In the year 2000, the board of regents at UND voted to retire the offensive mascot. In stepped their biggest alumnus, financially speaking, Ralph Englestad. Mr. Englestad, who had just donated 35 million dollars to build a new hockey arena, immediately fired off a letter to the University president stating he’d pull all funding from the school forever. In short order, the school reversed its stand on the mascot. Money talks, and sometimes it apparently screams and hollers. 

Who is, or was Ralph Englestad you ask? (He passed away in 2002) He was a Las Vegas casino owner who collected German, and specifically Hitler memorabilia. He was fond of throwing Adolph Hitler birthday parties. He had a painting of himself in a Gestapo uniform with “Love, Adolph” written in the corner. Yes, this drips with gargantuan amounts of pure unadulterated irony. And yet, it does follow a pattern if you care to connect the dots.

“But we’re honoring you.” The honoring claim flies in the face of the cultural and spiritual icons used and abused in the portrayal of Indian people as mascots. Face paint, drums, feathers, and prayer pipes are routinely depicted and this is an extreme affront. An exact parallel would be to have people dressed as friars or Jesuits burning crosses and bibles at halftime.  

Are there American Indians to be found who will tell you they don’t mind these mascots? Sure, and I bet there were African Americans who didn’t mind riding in the back of the bus. Don’t trot out an Uncle Tom-ahawk to justify the unjustifiable. Are there tribes who have endorsed mascots? Sure. That some people would sell their own mother for the right price isn’t confined to any race or group. 

It doesn’t make it right, honoring be damned. There is no place for race-based mascots. I hope North Dakota does the right thing in the end