In North Dakota, Controversy Has a Name

The NCAA has banned the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname from postseason events.
The NCAA has banned the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname from postseason events. (AP)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Ralph Engelstad's passion for his alma mater's nickname is reflected 3,000-fold in the ice hockey palace that bears his name on the otherwise austere campus of the University of North Dakota. That's roughly how many Fighting Sioux logos are carved in cherry wood-framed seats, etched in glass doors and inlaid on marble walkways in the $104 million arena constructed by the wildly successful Las Vegas entrepreneur and onetime college goalkeeper.

Engelstad's zeal also is spelled out in gold script at the arena's entrance, displayed next to a life-size statue of the school's late benefactor: "The Fighting Sioux logo, the Fighting Sioux uniforms, the aura of the Fighting Sioux tradition and the spirit of being a Fighting Sioux are of lasting value and immeasurable significance to our past, present and future."

But this lavish arena and the Fighting Sioux spirit it celebrates are suddenly in the crosshairs of an NCAA policy that restricts the use of Native American nicknames in college sports. Debate over the name has simmered on campus for 30 years, but emotions roiled anew in August when the NCAA labeled the Fighting Sioux moniker "hostile and abusive" and banned the display of the name and logo in postseason tournaments.

North Dakota was among 18 schools initially cited by the NCAA and is among 15 still under censure after Florida State, Utah and Central Michigan won reprieves, having documented that the tribes for whom their teams are named (the Seminoles, Utes and Chippewas, respectively) endorse the use. Starting Feb. 1, schools that can't document tribal support won't be allowed to host NCAA postseason games or wear uniforms with the offending names or logos in postseason play. Also subject to the ban are schools with generic nicknames, such as the Newberry (S.C.) Indians, because they have no "namesake" tribe to grant approval.

"The whole thing is nonsense," said Mitchell Zais, president of Newberry College. "The NCAA is not the arbiter of political correctness in this country. My view is that 'Indian,' in and of itself, is not a derogatory term and is not hostile or abusive any more than Fighting Irish or Minnesota Vikings or Spartans or Trojans -- all of which are human-image mascots. What are the limits of this? Are the [Presbyterian College] blue hose-wearing Highlanders insulting to people of Scottish descent?"

NCAA officials defend the policy, while conceding they underestimated the controversy it would trigger.

"All of American society will benefit from what we have already done, which is to call attention to negative stereotyping of Indians," said Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Executive Committee. "One of the things I've learned in the last three months is how insidiously Indian stereotyping has filtered into the general American consciousness. We would never allow stereotyping of other racial or ethnic groups in the way that we allow the stereotypes of Indians."

Adds Charlotte Westerhaus, the NCAA's vice president for diversity and inclusion: "This will aid in transforming our country, just like the integration of African Americans into education transported us from a segregated country to one that is truly united. This path is not completely finished; racial inclusivity is not something that is said and done. Sports can play a part of finishing the business."

Pride and a Logo

Nowhere has the NCAA's policy triggered more enmity than North Dakota's Red River Valley, where what once was a debate over a nickname has become a standoff over capitulation, driving a wedge between those who view the Fighting Sioux name as a symbol of honor and those who see it as a symbol of racism so hurtful they refuse to enter the hockey arena's doors, much less trod on the Fighting Sioux logos that adorn the floor.

"It has actually widened the gap and increased the negative rhetoric," University of North Dakota President Charles Kupchella said. "It has not been helpful with anything at all. It's like playing two record players in a room whenever there's a discussion about it."

On one side is Kupchella, who is supported by the state's political leaders and thousands of alumni who have written and e-mailed to applaud the university's stance, as well as the Sioux Crew, the 2,300-member student booster group that leads the rousing shout to conclude the national anthem before each home game: "O'er the land of the free, and the home of the Sioux. "

On record as opposing the name are 21 American Indian programs on campus, growing ranks of faculty, and students such as Frank Sage, 36, a senior sociology major from New Mexico whose father was a Navajo code talker, and Margaret Scott, 19, a sophomore nursing student. "My reaction is, 'Thank you, NCAA!' " Sage said. "I'm not your mascot."

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