Patriarchy and the "Fighting Sioux" by Dana Williams


Racism is the most obvious dynamic in the controversy over the University of North Dakota's nickname, the "Fighting Sioux". Defined as "discrimination or prejudice based upon race", we see many racist double standards in the use of the nickname. For instance, the political climate has been sensitized nationally to the exploitation of African-American, Jewish, and Asian-American culture. We would all collectively gasp if UND were to announce changing the "Fighting Sioux" to the "Hard Working Blacks", or the "Thrifty Jews". The usage of "Fighting Sioux" places Native Americans and D/L/Nakotans in an equivalent position of cultural belittlement. Generations worth of research on propaganda have shown that the best way to start the marginalization of a certain group of people is humiliation, demonization, and taking hostage how they are publicly portrayed.

But, is racism the only oppressive dynamic active in this controversy? I submit that there are other forms of domination in effect, such as hierarchical and bureaucratic exploitation. When all power and say over UND remains in the hands of a small number of people (or sometimes one individual), whether the President, the State Board of Higher Education, the Alumni Association, rich donors, and so on, it is difficult to have a fair, balanced, and meaningful dialogue and decision-making process.

Additionally, economic domination is a central factor with this issue. Many suspect that change would have occurred long ago were it not for the economic reliance upon alumni donations from small and large contributors. Whether it is the insistence of 1940s graduates or 2002 graduates to retain "their" name, or if it is the incredible financial and political clout wielded by figures like Ralph Engelstad, the same subtle threat is in place: if UND drops the nickname, then we will stop funding it. Even though such shallow criteria for funding one's alma matter is laughable, it remains an effective threat.

But, I think there is another element to this issue that is integral to how the political process has functioned thus far. The actions and reactions of the power-actors have been at times decidedly macho, paternalistic, and sexist. Herein, I will try to make a case that a form of patriarchy is functioning here.

Patriarchy is "a social system in which the father is the head of a family or in which men have control over women". It is also understood as the dynamic that fosters and causes sexist behavior. But, the functions of patriarchy may also be understood in more abstract ways that explain oppressive interpersonal relationships, family structures, institutional values, and other systems of power. Finally, it also can be understood as a societal domination of "male-identified" traits and behaviors.

Even though this piece does not always perfectly relate UND's and its supporters' use of the "Fighting Sioux" to dictionary definition "patriarchy", I have tried to explore the dynamics of patriarchy in regards to more generalized trends. I have intentionally employed analogies to this end.


The sordid past of the "Fighting Sioux" at UND has followed a typical patriarchal pattern. In 1972, fraternity men displayed an ice sculpture of a topless Native woman with the words "Lick 'em Sioux" displayed across her breasts. In 1992, Native children found themselves harassed at a homecoming day parade by jeers of "Squaws, go home to the reservation where you belong" (parents did not appreciate the obscene and derogatory meaning behind the word "squaw" -- meaning female genitalia). A 1997 Grand Forks Herald article reported opposing sports fans exploiting the "Fighting Sioux" nickname to their competitive advantage by crudely chanting: "Sioux Fuck Their Women".

Sports-related t-shirts that sexually demean Native Americans continue to appear at UND. One shirt depicted a Native male on his knees in front of a bison (the Bison are the "mascot" of North Dakota State University -- UND's rival school) to perform oral sex with the phrase: "Blow us: We saw, They sucked, We came". Another shirt featured the geometric logo of a "Fighting Sioux" female with thick red lips and the text: "A Century of Sucking, 1890-1990". Most callous of all was the sale of a shirt by a Grand Forks (!) business that featured an obese Native male engaged in "doggy-style" sex with a bison, urging him to "Buck the Bison UNDer". Heavens no, the dynamics of racism, patriarchal domination, and sexual humiliation are not present with the "Fighting Sioux"!!


We likely wouldn't be having this conversation were it not for collegiate sports. Athletics has become the lifeblood of a university's ability to (supposedly) stay financially in the black. The male political and business leaders of tomorrow get their inspiration and start from sports. As a result, athletics foster the same cutthroat competition that capitalism thrives upon. The extension of this competition is the need for women to stay out of view and manage the things that such competition can't provide: a stable home, childrearing, and other life necessities.

The visceral violence of sports (especially hockey and football) encourages a "take-no-shit" attitude in its athletes. Fans emulate the players' attitudes towards other fans and those who they fear would undermine "their fun" (such as those advocating a team name-change). This is seen in the commonplace threats, devoid of intelligence and logic, which are lobbed at public name-change advocates. Attend a name-change rally and witness the physical bullying practiced by spectators that have been perfected on the gridiron, rink, court, etc.

Assuming Lakotans to be violent people (thus the "Fighting" part of the Fighting Sioux) falsely represents a peaceful people who were put on the defensive when their land was invaded by European armies and settlers. Using "Fighting" in the name of the sports team allows fans to utilize overly masculine and belligerent attitudes towards all opposed to them. Perversely, fans think that by inventing this hyper-aggressive (and inaccurate) stereotype of the Lakotan people they are "honoring" them, instead of merely imposing their own attitudes upon Native culture.


The informal relationships that men are able to create as outgrowths of sports, fraternities, business-dealings, and other "respectable" activities in society are tools that women and other disenfranchised people of society struggle to create themselves and fight against.

The best example of this is the "Ralph Engelstad Factor". It's very obvious how a man like Ralph Engelstad has had such an influence over UND. After a brief hockey career at UND, he went on to make a fortune by exploiting the vices of Americans on land that un-ironically should belong to the Western Shoshone (Las Vegas, Nevada) were treaties respected. After amassing enormous wealth and power, he began selflessly giving money to UND -- almost exclusively for sports-related things. The first Engelstad Arena was named after his multi-million dollar gifts. Later, he pledged $100 million to UND (through the help of ally Earl Strinden of the Alumni Association), half of which would be used to build a new hockey arena. When questions and resistance to his racist past (he was an avid collector of Nazi paraphernalia and threw two "birthday parties" with Hitler themes in the 1980's) and his political meddling surfaced, he sunk all $100 million into the over-the-top arena that he still owns.

These dangling promises, combined with the alliances of old White men who have ties to UND, perpetuate these racist conditions. It is assured that students graduating from UND instilled with a sense of rabid dedication to the nickname, will go onto defend it mercilessly for the most vacuous and piddly of reasons. Since society continues to be male-dominated, it is useful to look at the actions of present White male students, since they will become the future power brokers in the region.

The "old boy's club" has adapted, just as other "clubs" (like country clubs) have had to in recent years, to demands for more inclusivity. Thus, the "Fighting Sioux" has come to represent the equivalent of tokenism. Instead of real attempts to share power, the "old boys club" uses the "Fighting Sioux" to feign diversity and multi-culturalism, just as corporations prop up a small handful of female mid-level managers for "show".

Although UND does not technically have a "mascot" (someone who dresses up as a "Fighting Sioux" for sporting events), all Native students have, in effect, become mascots for the university to parade around: "See, we're not being racist... how can we be racist when we have so many Native American programs?" (The university never mentions that these programs are mainly financed externally and that most are on record as opposing the nickname.) This sounds suspiciously like, "How can we possibly be sexist when we employ so many women?" The simple presence of the oppressed does not necessarily indicate justice.


University administrators frequently paternalistically make decisions "on behalf" of name-change advocates. When activists do not take this patronizing seriously, the UND administration sets-up bureaucratic agencies (such as Kupchella's "Nickname Commission") to soothe, delay, placate, and sterilize activist demands. How long would a committee have to deliberate on the racism of a team called the "Helpful Mexicans" -- in honor of the migrant farm workers whom the economy keeps in a state of consistent poverty? Would they really have to think twice about other racialized nicknames?

The periodic and incoherent outbursts from UND's father figures are essentially demands for name-change activists to "shut the hell up". For example, Earl Strinden refers to activists as "nothing more than a pimple on the rear end of an elephant" in the same tone as a father insulting his own child, designed to make her/him accept his rule of the family. The master uses it to whip the slave back into mental submission by causing self-doubt and shame. On the other hand, this would not even register on the radar of a man like Strinden if the name-change movement was not becoming successful.

Ralph Engelstad played the "father" (and "sugar daddy") best when he threatened to let his $100+ million stadium rot in the tundra if UND did not tow his line. Then he maliciously threatened a female professor for daring to raise her voice in defiance of his megalomania. Engelstad's words were reminiscent of a father demanding that his daughter be "seen and not heard".

The "Father Knows Best" syndrome is seen when other members of "the family" become active in debate on an issue of the day, thus upsetting the status quo. It is difficult to carry out "business as usual" when that business is constantly charged as being racist. The FKB syndrome causes people to think that students, professors, and Native Americans should not meddle in the operations and decisions of things that don't concern them. Thus, students should only be concerned with going to class, studying, and graduating. Professors should focus on teaching their classes, conducting their research, and gaining tenure. And Native Americans should focus on their own damn problems, because UND is helping Natives by using the "Fighting Sioux". The administrators should be allowed to make all the important decisions for the university... or so goes the mythology.


U.S. society holds many unreasonable standards for women: body weight, breast size, waist length, cheekbone height, lip depth, figure, and so forth. Magazines, movies, music, fashion, pop culture, and the cosmetics industry enforce restrictions upon women for their social behavior, diet, clothing style, etc. These standards facilitate the objectification of women by men. It is not the actual person that a hetero man becomes attracted to, but an "idealized" woman of 36-24-34-whatever dimensions who is "nice", not too smart, and "puts out".

The same thing occurs with the "Fighting Sioux". White UND students pay homage to unrealistic, romanticized, dated, and irrelevant interpretations of Native people as if they were the "norm". Whites -- who can purchase baby clothes that say "Fighting Sioux Forever" or sweatpants with "Sioux" written across the butt -- have turned Native people into objects to be enjoyed and consumed.

To be properly objectified, all Natives must be "Fighting", they must all be obedient representatives for White-preconceptions, and they have to be good sports about it. Further, D/L/Nakotans (not to mention all Native people) are cast into one visual portrayal: the recently created and symbolically perfected logo, just as all women are told to look and act like Cindy Crawford.

Conveniently, objectification does not require "permission"; the standard bar can be raised whenever necessary for control purposes. Self-loathing is caused when the objectified cannot achieve the lofty goals set out before them.

Obedience is systemically built-in to the standards of objectification. People must limit themselves based upon the popularly perceived notions of possibility. But, when a Native refuses to be objectified and they become openly resistant, they are told to "go back to the rez", just as a sexist man would tell a woman to "go home if you don't want to go past third base with me".


In 1999, the Executive Committee of the Women's Studies program stated, "Native American women and children seem to be taking a large amount of the anger being expressed against the proposal that UND change its nickname and logo." Also being targeted were progressive academics that heard: "if you liberal professors don't like it here, you can leave"... "especially those liberal White women". Beyond the fact that the term "liberal" dates back to the time of the French Revolution -- and I would argue the term has little relevance today -- there's nothing wrong with being "liberal" or a woman. Since few Native Americans or other people of color have teaching positions at UND, sensitized Whites often take it upon themselves to cry foul.

Just like the feminists of yesteryear, these "liberal White women" serve as punching bags for a resistant majority who feel that their way of life is "threatened". The accusation of being a "liberal White woman" acts to say: "you don't have a vital opinion or stake in this matter". But, if you are a conservative "Native" man like David Yeagley, your opinion will be worshipped. Conservative White men like Ralph Engelstad, Earl Strinden, and others have been able to purchase their respectability. The unspoken claim is "we have to trust them and their intentions".

Obviously, others targeted by this blame game are "liberal Native women". They are implicitly told that they should be "concerned with more important matters". Then a laundry list of ills is usually listed, such as poverty, alcoholism, suicide, unemployment, and so forth. Further, Native women shouldn't be responsible with the image of their culture... they should instead be minding the babies at home so they don't "grow up with such problems". It is the place of the men (and especially White men) to ensure that Native culture is managed (i.e. marketed and sold) properly.

Scorn is directed at these women. "How dare they meddle in politics or how things work?" By participating in this debate, the stranglehold of male monopoly is being broken. Women are pointing out that patriarchy is openly hostile towards the primacy of care, cooperation, compassion, tolerance, and nonviolence -- all traditionally female-gendered traits. By doing so, the traits ascribed to the male gender of "benevolent" decision-making, force, competition, and domination are being challenged.


The efforts to remove all traces of patriarchal attitudes, actions, and allegiances from UND ought to follow the same strategy as with general society: democratize, sensitize, educate, make transparent, enforce and broaden affirmative action, and encourage male defection from patriarchy. Most important of all is to call patriarchy by its name when it rears its ugly head.


[Please forgive the briefness of this piece, which is intentionally non-quantitative, non-qualitative, marginally theoretically, and mostly explorative. It is written by someone very under-versed in feminist theory and formal training.

I've made a concerted effort to act as a "pro-feminist man" in my personal and political life. But, since I am a man, I write this from a perspective removed from the immediate impact of sexism. Thus, the best enabling factor for me to write this piece is the "on the job" training in patriarchy that life has offered me because of my gender.

A special thanks to Sandra Donaldson for her thoughtful comments and her helpful criticisms.]