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Students and community members fight to abolish ‘Fighting Sioux’ mascot, University of North Dakota, 1999-2011
In October of 1930, the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, changed its mascot from the Flickertails to the Fighting Sioux. The reported reasoning for doing so was that the university needed to better match their rival’s mascot, the North Dakota State University Bison, and that the Sioux Indians were notorious for their bison fighting skills. Since year one of the initial nickname and logo change, UND students, faculty, and community members, both Native American and non-Native American alike, have disputed the mascot.
In 1969, UND students formed the UND Indian Association (UNDIA) to advocate for Native American student rights and educational fairness on campus. In 1970, the group publicly stated its opposing stance to the Fighting Sioux name and logo and in 1973 asserted that local schools should not be allowed to use Indians as mascots. They continued their vocal protests through the 1990s.
Several Native American tribes existed in the UND region. One, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, was the first to demand the end of the Fighting Sioux mascot in 1992. This same year, students at UND created a new, more active group called Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR).
In 1993, the UND Faculty Senate voted to stop the use of the name and logo, just as three other tribes, the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota Summit V stated their opposition to the mascot. Then-President Dr. Kendall Baker rejected the Faculty Senate’s resolution arguing that the mascot was part of the school’s “pride and tradition.” Baker also retired the Black Hawk logo representing the Fighting Sioux.
More groups joined the opposition arguing to discontinue the name, including the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Semitism Subcommittee of the National Affairs Commission, and the National Affairs Steering Committee. The list continued to grow, and in 1994 the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media and the National Association of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American Journalists joined those opposing the name. In addition, two groups, the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and the National Congress of American Indians created resolutions against the mascot.
In 1995, UNDIA publicly protested the name. The student group SOAR changed to Building Roads Into Diverse Groups Empowering Students (BRIDGES).
In 1997, the Cheyenne River Sioux, National Affairs Commission, and Civil Rights Committee, all declared their opposition to the mascot’s use.
The National Congress of American Indians and the Governor’s Interstate Indian Council added to the opposition in 1998. Most significantly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also declared the name should be discontinued during this year. Also in 1998, the UND Student Senate voted to discontinue the mascot, as the UND Faculty Senate had done earlier in 1993, but the student body president vetoed the decision. Similarly, North Dakota’s House of Representatives rejected a comparable resolution to abolish the name. One group heard the growing protests against the name, however; UND’s ROTC Battalion discontinued its use of the Fighting Sioux mascot.
Opposition to the mascot continued to grow, and in 1999 seven tribes stated their request for the abolishment of the name: Spirit Lake Nation, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sisseton/Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Yankton Sioux Tribe, and Oglala Sioux Tribe. The UND student group, Student Political Action Network, also joined the opposition. Also in 1999, UND President Charles Kupchella presented a new logo designed by a Chippewa artist. Students criticized the new logo saying it was no better than the old Black Hawk symbol. When the symbol was first introduced in an assembly, several students walked out of the room in protest.
Given fresh controversy over the newly introduced logo, in 2000 Kupchella created a Names Commission to investigate the mascot controversy for one year. The UND faculty group Campus Committee on Human Rights was not happy with those he chose to sit on the committee, however, and condemned his actions.
In December 2000, at a student-led “Rally for Change” protesting the use of the name, three UND students were arrested for blocking a road. Also in December, the State Board of Higher Education overrode Kupchella’s decision to investigate the name controversy and stated that the mascot would not change. Later that month, a letter from UND alumnus Ralph Engelstad was discovered in which he stated that he would cancel his $100 million dollar donation for a new hockey arena (a highly-coveted facility since UND had been consecutive seven-time national hockey champions) if the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo were changed. The threat was believed to be the motivation for the State Board of Higher Education’s quick decision in December to keep the logo. The hockey arena was completed by 2001. Engelstad oversaw the adhering of over 2,000 logo symbols in the arena, adorned on lockers and the wooden floors, as well as the placement of a 30-foot granite logo and gold-plated logos at the end of every row of seats. The alumnus effectively ensured that UND would not be financially able to de-logo the building if the school voted to abolish the name.
In October 10, 2003, University of Texas at Austin professor of journalism Robert Jensen gave a speech entitled “The Past and Human Dignity: What the ‘Fighting Sioux’ Tells Us About White People” on the behalf of BRIDGES in which he spoke of the mascot controversy in the context of a larger Native American-U.S. oppressive history.
In 2005, the NCAA published a list of 18 schools with “hostile and abusive” logos and mascots and subsequently banned them all from any postseason athletic play. One by one the schools discontinued their mascots or reached an agreement with the Native American community until the University of North Dakota remained the only school on the NCAA’s list. UND tried to sue the NCAA and in 2007 the two reached a settlement agreement in which UND had to abolish the name if it had not gained the support of the state’s two namesake tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux and the Spirit Lake Sioux, by November 30, 2010. (*More recent articles state that the settlement agreement assigned a deadline of August 15, 2011, so further investigation into the deadline/any date extensions/etc. is needed).
In March 2005, BRIDGES co-sponsored a protest of the name before a noontime NCAA Elite Eight Division II basketball game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena (REA). One hundred community members and students carried signs saying “For a better University of North Dakota, people not logos.”
BRIDGES, along with the American Indian Movement, organized a similar demonstration in 2006 in which students and community members protested the nickname and logo again at REA during the West Regional hockey games. They carried signs reading, “Racism is alive and well” and “Honor Cannot Be Forced” and other posters supporting the NCAA’s involvement in the issue.
On September 28, 2007, BRIDGES and the American Indian Movement co-organized a protest at UND’s homecoming game at the Aleus Center, hoping to gain as much publicity as possible at the widely attended event.
On October 8, 2008, BRIDGES organized a protest outside of the REA center where pro-mascot groups were unveiling tribal flags in the building. The unveiling was an effort to gain positive publicity for the logo and change its growing negative connotation. Members of BRIDGES argued that none of the 29 American Indian programs on campus were notified of the unveiling and none of the approximate 400 Native American students on campus were invited to the event.
On September 30, 2009, UNDIA organized a demonstration at the city Memorial Building. Approximately 50 American Indian activists protested the next day’s State Board of Higher Education vote to discontinue the logo. Professor Lucy Ganje of the school’s Campus Committee for Human Rights and BRIDGES was one of the organizers. Protesters carried signs saying “UND Sioux Logo Identity Theft” and “We Demand Our Civil Rights.” On the October 1st vote, the board decided 6-1 to extend the deadline by 30-60 days.
Later in 2009, the board received permission from the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe (which had voted by referendum) to continue the use of the mascot. The Standing Rock Sioux tribal council, meanwhile, had rejected a movement to allow the Standing Rock tribal members to vote on the issue. (Historically, Standing Rock had been anti-mascot). By mid-May the board had still only heard from the Spirit Lake tribe and voted on May 14th to abolish the nickname and logo. The board then delayed any implementation of its decision due to forthcoming tribal elections.
The Spirit Lake Sioux tribal council collected 1,000 signatures from members in support of a referendum for the Standing Rock tribe, which they delivered to the Board of Higher Education on March 22, 2010. The demanded referendum never occurred, however.
On April 8, 2010, the board implemented its May 2009 decision to discontinue the Fighting Sioux mascot as the council had still only gained approval from the Spirit Lake Sioux.
In March 2011, though UND had begun the process of discontinuing the mascot, North Dakota’s majority-Republican legislature passed HB 1263 requiring UND to keep the name. The state legislature’s law went into effect on August 22, 2011. In the meantime, on August 12, six American Indian students, Amber Annis, Lisa Casarez, William Crawford, Sierra Davis, Robert Rainbow, Margaret Scott, Franklin Sage, and Janie Schroeder (most or all of whom are members of BRIDGES), filed a lawsuit arguing that by continuing the mascot, UND was violating the state constitution and reversing the 2007 court-ordered settlement agreement between the NCAA and the university stating UND had to discontinue its logo unless it had the approval of the two tribes. On August 15, the NCAA enforced sanctions on UND, disallowing any sports teams from postseason play and any athletes from wearing Fighting Sioux-labeled apparel during postseason contests.
In September 2011, UND, anticipating the appeal of HB 1263, stated that it would be discontinuing the logo by the end of 2011. The school will begin a search for a new nickname and logo.