I once stood in the midst of a press conference at the largest university in the state of North Dakota, and watched the brand new president, Charles Kupchella, as he unveiled a "new" logo for the school's sports teams. The logo was a leap back into the past of the school's history in using a racial mascot, "The Fighting Sioux". The logo looked quite a bit like one that was removed a few years ago due to racial incidents on campus. As I watched this, I listened to his response to a question regarding the artist's ethnicity (who was Chippewa-- not Sioux), by saying, "I don't know his pedigree". It was at that moment, when a gasp rose from my lips and many other students who were in attendance. In amazement I realized for the first time how strongly biased the attitudes towards Native Americans were in this state, maybe even the worst against any ethnic group in the country.
Many schools in recent years have been facing challenges to their school mascots. Be they high schools or major universities, schools are feeling resistance to their use of people as mascots, specifically Native Americans. Some of the best-known teams with Native names are in professional sports, such as the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, and Kansas City Chiefs.
Most of the uproar on a national-level, however, has been over collegiate teams, like the Florida State Seminoles, University of Illinois Chief Illiniwek, University of San Diego Aztecs, and the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Elementary schools and high schools don't have the ability (nor desire) to retain such names (thus change them), while professional sport teams are so popular that "parallel issues" like the usage of indigenous culture as a sport and moneymaking device don't get adequate attention (and thus don't change them). Therefore, colleges are the present-day battlefields in the debate the "mascot issue" in the US, or as some have put it, the issue of modern-day cultural imperialism.
I had the pleasure of being involved in the movement at UND to change its name and logo (which still continues). In the process of my short stay in Grand Forks, ND, I had the opportunity to make friends with many people from both sides of the issue, and numerous occasions for debate and public confrontation. I was there long enough to realize how uneducated my fellow students were in matters of tolerance, diversity, culture, and racism. I was also, unfortunately, there long enough for a friend of mine, for whom I have an amazing amount of respect, to receive a death threat for his activism to change the name.
What is the source of the problem with Native images and persons as mascots and logo? Quite simply, the issue is racism. And the root of the problem is that it's not identified as racism. Why not? Native Americans are a group that the rest of the country would prefer to not think about, just like certain sectors of the country would prefer to not think about blacks, because they are a reminder of this country's history of slavery. Native Americans and their presence bring up the question of where this great expanse of a country actually came from. Who lived here before "Americans" and where did they go? These questions make people very uncomfortable, and rightfully so, since the so-called profitable state of the US and its industrial revolution would've been impossible without such a minor "oversight".
We identify racism in this country against Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so forth, but rarely does the notion of racism make people think of Native Americans. Funny, no? Here's a classification of countless ethnicities, nations, and tribes whose words and names adorn our rivers, cities, and states. They are used as corporation names, our automobiles and military weaponry, and, yes, our entertainment. To most Americans, it's the most natural thing in the world.
Consider the nature of sports teams: they're used to make people in certain places identify with those teams via shared geographic locations and history. The most obvious of this phenomenon is the fact that all sports teams are identified first by where they are from. Then the second part of the name is drawn (or some would say stolen) from the environment, people, and past. In the case of Native mascots, all three.
It is important to notice that Native American mascots (and indeed other ethnicities) are utilized in the same context as other things or people from the past, like the 49ers, Cowboys, Patriots, Vikings, etc. One small problem, of course, is that these sorts of people are and continued to be revered in American folklore for their brazen display of "American values" of individualism, capitalism, and, well, patriotism, whereas Native peoples have been subjected to genocide, forced-relocation, biological warfare, theft of their natural resources, murder, rape, toxic waste dumping, and a reservation system that Adolph Hitler himself sung praises of. It is obvious that Natives have not enjoyed the same "good luck" that the average dictionary definition of "mascots" infers that they bring.
Students at UND have argued, as people do in all these instances, that the true way to honor and respect the culture of an ethnicity is not to name a team after them, especially a disadvantaged racial minority. Heads would turn at the presence of a team like the University of Mississippi Negroes or University of Texas Spics. Or as Noam Chomsky suggests, imagine the uproar if there were a soccer team called the Munich Kikes. So, why does such resistance exist in the case of "Redskins", "Squaws" (a dirty word that the closest translation for is "cunt"), "Braves", "Indians" or "Chiefs"? Native people are often unknown to the majority of Americans, thus they can be relegated to the back of their memories, to the background of the American landscape-- it is no mistake that the Bureau of Indian Affairs falls under the Department of the Interior.
Thus, we make up our own history of what happened to those strange, fairytale-like people. Sure, they were (and are) noble, honorable, brave, and the like, and that deserves to be remembered. Yet, they should not be forgotten as an impoverished and disadvantaged minority that are still fighting for autonomy, against oil and mining companies, against "nuclear racism", against some of the worst socio-economic conditions any ethnicity in the country experiences. It is the very "honor" of their past that allows for the ignorance of their present. By clapping ourselves on the back and claiming to honor their memory we repress their ability to make a future for themselves.
Native children grow up in North Dakota seeing their culture represented by drunken, jingoistic hockey fans yelling the label of their ethnicity at the top of their inebriated lungs. The opposing, equally-wasted and uncaring fans respond back with such thoughtful chants like "Sioux suck!", "Fuck the Sioux!", "Fuck their women!", "Sioux eat shit!", and other pleasantries. Can you imagine the psychological damage to a child who experiences this public ritual of indifference to the rich and sacred spiritualism, culture, and way of life of Native people?
Charges of being "PC" or "overly-sensitive" are often hurled at those concerned with matters of Native Americans as mascots. They are asked, "aren't there more important matters you should be dealing with?" Others constantly harangue them with charges of not having anything better to do or of being "radicals without a cause". Yet, what is more important to people than their own sense of self-worth? What is more crucial and necessary than the feeling of freedom from being stereotyped on the basis of your skin color? What is more important than fighting for the cultural liberation of a people living "free", but with the abuse of a dominant majority? Nothing.
It would be one thing for me to sit back and argue this as a middle-class white male, as someone already endowed with privilege. Yet, every single tribal government that represents Lakota/Nakota/Dakota tribes on reservations has asked directly for UND to stop using this name. The NCAA (National College Athletic Association), NAACP, and the National Education Association, in addition to countless human rights, religious, and cultural organizations have asked for the end of this practice in the case of every Native-names mascot.
The people who resist change are normally good-hearted people who just don' t know any better. They've never been challenged to consider the nature of these situations or what the logical conclusion indicates. These people are reachable, and I've seen countless people change their minds about this, just as my mind was once changed.
The true source of resistance to change has always been from the main sources of power themselves in Universities-- the administrations, alumnists, and sports fan(anitc)s. In other words, the moneyed interests who, more often than not, are where the vast majority of policy on campuses come from. Administrators fear the change of college identity and the loss of money from alumnists and athletic revenues. The alumnists fear the loss of "their" names which they somehow identify with and claim for their own; thus they threaten to revoke their sizable financial support should "anything happen" to their name. The sports fans also want to prevent "their" team from changing in anyway its identity, and they also threaten that they will quit patronizing games and stop buying merchandise should any change occur. These threats and fear invariably boil down to interests of money and the subjugation of Native peoples and their cultures for the use of these almost totally white people.
They soothe themselves and their consciences by mumbled parables about paying respect to Native people (who they occasionally refer to as "prairie niggers"). The total sum of this "respect" has been seen at UND on numerous occasions, like 1970 when a fraternity made an ice sculpture of a topless Native woman with a sign reading "Lick 'em Sioux", or 1993 in a homecoming parade where nearby float members taunted a children's Native dance group with catcalls like "go back to the reservation!" or "tell your parents to get off welfare!" and then teasing them with war-whooping and the infamous "tomahawk chop". All this antagonism can be summed up in the insult hurled at a speaker of an anti-name rally, saying, "why don't we change it to the 'Constantly Bitching Sioux'?" That's the bottom line with this issue: whenever Native people come forward to assert their rights or their culture, members of the status quo-- who feel somehow challenged by their existence and demands-- push them back.
Native people and progressive-minded folk have fought back.
They've staged rallies, protests, walkouts, and walk-ins. They've written letters to papers, they've pleaded with multiple University presidents and administrators, and they've faced their own classmates and their sometimes-harsh attacks. This is the Lakotan way: all things are done with deep respect. If you read the many resolutions from North and South Dakota tribes regarding the name, they ask with enormous pleasantness for the University to change. They don't demand, they ask kindly. Personally, there have been numerous occasions working within the student organization working on a name change, BRIDGES (Building Roads Into Diverse Groups Empowering Students) where I've wanted to take an aggressive or at least a more assertive stance against the administration and the Alumni Association. I was always reigned back in by the less hot-headed of the group who knew that in order to convince an opponent of anything you must not treat them like an opponent, but a person or group worthy of equal respect.
This wary and uneasy respect has been dissolving over the last few years as promises have been broken, surprises been sprung, and lies been told to these students by the powerful of UND. Their voices have grown louder and more assertive, less concerned with stepping on toes once it was realized that these powerful people don't often notice the student proles walking around their ankles. The students began taking more visible steps for change, such as milling about the student Union engaging their peers in discussion and teach-ins, or with graffiti, or in the first ever protest-related arrests since the Vietnam War when this past Fall nearly a dozen students laid down on University Avenue to vocalize their frustrations at inaction, with three finally being arrested.
The voices have started to reach a feverish pitch. Events at UND as of late have spun themselves in clear attempts at squashing resistance to UND's cultural imperialism. A brand new hockey arena is presently being built with a $100 million donation from wealthy Las Vegas hotel owner and UND alum with Nazi obsessions, Ralph Engelstad. After conspiring to introduce a more traditional logo (to replace the more "PC" geometric logo that was created after the 1993 homecoming incident), President Kupchella stood before the University Senate, which was ready to call for the end of the name, and admitted that the use of people as mascots was "wrong". He then instead created a "Commission" to analyze the name issue and suggest courses of action for him. Heavily weighted initially by well-known and powerful alumnists and lacking Native representation or multicultural experts, the group reached a conclusion that was obvious from the beginning: the issue revolved around money and the feared loss of alumni donations and athletic profits. Committee-member Jesse Taken Alive observed that the debate was finally boiling down to its true nature: culture vs. money.
Recently, name supporters have begun organizing, too, in order to counter the growing opposition to the name. They've held rallies and "cultural education" events, where the small numbers of Natives who don't mind the name (or the whispered promises they receive from UND) speak on abstract notions of their culture, without bringing the issue full-circle for their sizable audiences. This is combined with Engelstad's public adnittance that he is extorting the university to keep the name, or he'll pull his millions. The piles of cash were working to influence Kupchella to retain the name and converge on what he calls a "third option", which he describes as keeping the name, but convincing (read: coerce or buy-out) the tribes that the name is "honorable".
Compromises have occurred again and again, and it is a clear victory for the status quo and a permanent set back for those striving for recognition of the notion that people shouldn't be mascots. When the mobilized masses of students can't reach that lofty tower of power where the UND president sits, the campus is destined for an uproar.
In a final act of largess, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education pre-empted Kupchella in a unilateral move (that smelled rather acceptable to those in power) declared that UND would not only keep the name permanently, but start using the new logo. With the current trend within North Dakota of a rapidly decreasing population and of graduating students fleeing the state like rats on a sinking ship, the SBHE decided that the only way to retain all those students and shrinking public funding was to codify the one thing these North Dakotans perceive they have in common: racism against Native Americans.
The decision was a clear endorsement of something that most Americans assume had been eliminated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but foolishly refuse to acknowledge scores of race related problems all around them. In an age where the Civil Rights movement is summed up by only the celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, and every essence of racial issues co-opted into "other categories", like DWB/DWI (Driving While Black/Indian), the Prison Industrial Complex, Welfare "Reform", and the banning of bi-lingual education, this act of rejectionism by the upper-echelons of power in the state of North Dakota should surprise no one. It brought anger, tears, depression, and fear to many activists working on this issue. Many students won't be returning to the school out of fear for violence and retaliation and unwillingness to attend a school of "higher education" that endorses racism. Other students are likely to become set-afire by this slap in the face and will take increasingly aggressive action against UND.
A premonition of the tensions and angers on campus is illustrated by how Frank Johnson, an African-American student coach of the football team, was indifferent on the name change until his mother asked him how he'd feel if the school was called the "Fighting Niggers". He angrily responded, "I'd burn this goddamn campus down! I know what my grandmother went through". Many others are starting to see the historic parallels of this case and are starting to feel the same way, too. Don't be surprised if others take Johnson's passion to heart and somehow burn away (figuratively or literally) the dead grass, so the new seeds beneath the surface can finally germinate.