Does the use of Native American mascots lead to racist debacles like ‘Siouxper Drunk’?

The University of North Dakota has responded forcefully to blatantly racist antics by some members of its student body.

Ahead of an annual alcohol-soaked bacchanal called Springfest last weekend, a few kids at the public university decided that it was a good idea to make “Siouxper Drunk” T-shirts — complete with the caricature of a Native American man wearing a headdress and drinking from a funnel.

“Siouxper Drunk.” Get it?

The episode comes just two years after the university retired its Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo in the wake of intense NCAA pressure. But after more than 80 years of using the mascot, it is perhaps no surprise that these old habits are dying an embarrassingly painful death.

North Dakotans were dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that it was time to retire their mascot. The NCAA determined in 2005 that “hostile and abusive” mascots such as UND’s needed to become a thing of the past; the State of North Dakota sued on behalf of the North Dakota state board of higher education and UND to keep the “Fighting Sioux,” and the state legislature passed a law forbidding the school from retiring the name. The state’s law was eventually reversed.

That very recent history looms large in the reactions to last weekend’s controversy.

UND President Robert Kelley issued a statement Monday distancing the university from Springfest (which isn’t officially affiliated with the school) and suggesting that the students weren’t a part of any school-sanctioned group.

“I was appalled to learn this weekend that a group of individuals had the poor judgment and lack of awareness and understanding to create and then wear T-shirts that perpetuated a derogatory and harmful stereotype of American Indians,” Kelley said in the statement. “The message on the shirts demonstrated an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community.”

In a subsequent video message, released Wednesday night, Kelley reiterated a commitment to partnering with the student body on “specific actions” geared at fostering respect and civility on campus.

But is it too little too late?

The anger in the Native American community goes beyond UND and extends to a myriad of amateur and professional sports teams that still use Native names and imagery to represent their team — not least the Washington Redskins, though the list also includes the Florida State Seminoles, the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ruth Hopkins, who broke the “Siouxper Drunk” story on LastrealIndians.com, laid plain the stakes for people of Native decent:

Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people comprise the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), also known as The Great Sioux Nation. Oceti Sakowin were called ‘Sioux’ by their enemies. …

The ‘drunken Indian’ caricature is one of the worst stereotypes about Native people that there is. Historically, imbibing is not part of Native culture. There are many Native people, Oceti Sakowin included, who do not abuse alcohol.

Europeans introduced alcohol to the Indigenous population in America. Prior to their arrival, Native people did not drink alcohol at all. Since then, Europeans have been pretty successful at using alcohol to subdue & assimilate Natives.

Alcoholism is a serious issue in Indian country and its nothing to laugh about. According to the CDC, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis is the #5 cause of death among Native Americans. In 2010, 15,990 Natives died from alcoholic liver disease alone. Another 25,692 died from alcohol-induced deaths, not counting accidents and homicides. In fact, 1 in 10 Native American deaths are alcohol-related.

By virtue of social media, it’s clear that these students were well aware that the shirts would spark the controversy that it did. One tweeted: “Our Springfest shirts will make the news I just know it lol.” The comment has been deleted.

The “Siouxper Drunk” controversy is just one of several recent incidents on the UND campus that prompted a group of Native students to write a scathing letter that blamed the university for being “complicit” in acts of racial insensitivity on campus, and for failing to put forward concrete solutions.

“The problem,” the letter said, “is clearly systemic.”

But the incident highlights the difficulty of policing “appropriate” uses of Native imagery and names. Can sports teams claim to use them without racist intent, but still distance themselves from the people who do?

UPDATE 6:03 p.m.: UND administrators announced today that they will participate in the Walk for Change organized by Native Americans on campus to protest “Anti-Indianism” on campus.

And separately, a North Dakota state lawmaker Rep. Scott Louser said that he will introduce legislation this year that could allow the school to preserve the “Fighting Sioux” motto. If it is successful, the legislation would extend UND’s moratorium on developing a new nickname to replace “Fighting Sioux” until 2017, which Louser believes can buy more time to negotiate with Native tribes and convince them to support the school’s continued use of the Sioux name.

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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