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."
"It's just dehumanizing," said Scott. "They put us on the same level as animals."
Asked Sharon Carson, a professor of English and religious studies, "Why are we continuing to put the campus through this?"
Faced with that question, Kupchella bristles.
"Do you dismiss 80 years of tradition and pride in a logo and say, 'Well, that's irrelevant'?" Kupchella said. "That's something I suppose you could do from a distance, but not if you live here. It's not irrelevant. Sure, there are a thousand nicknames we could have, but we had one. For 80 years! And that point is, I'm afraid, lost on people out there -- even those who live in places where professional teams are called the Redskins."
Kupchella argues that North Dakota is the best place in the country for Native Americans to pursue higher education. The campus spends roughly $10 million a year on 31 programs for Native American students, he notes, and enrolls far more Native Americans (about 400) than the other schools cited by the NCAA combined. "Doggone it, substance ought to count for something!" he said.
But the NCAA rejected North Dakota's appeal of the nickname restrictions because two of the state's three federally recognized Sioux tribes oppose it. The third, Spirit Lake Nation, didn't make its preference known.
Visiting the Spirit Lake reservation hardly clarifies matters. It's a flat, straight shot 90 miles west of Grand Forks, with little to see en route and even less to block the howling wind except an occasional grain elevator and road sign -- "Gas Food Propane Diesel," "Fireworks," "Hay 4 Sale."
Spirit Lake Casino stands at the entrance to the reservation -- a no-frills affair next to a four-story hotel and cabaret showcasing fading country music stars. The casino employs about 400, but jobs remain the tribe's major need (unemployment runs 65 percent in winter, 50 percent in summer). Housing also is sparse: a smattering of one-story homes with weather-beaten siding and scruffy patches of weeds out front. Families of 10 cram in two-bedroom houses, but the reservation feels lifeless, with only a few dogs roaming about.
It's only nominally more lively in the casino, where white-haired men in caps (most of them elderly non-Native Americans) park themselves in front of slot machines, breaking only to refuel at the snack bar. It's a jarring contrast with the opulence of the Engelstad Arena, the second-most visited building in North Dakota next to the state capitol in Bismarck. Spirit Lake's former tribal chairman, Skip Longie, refuses to join the throng after taking his daughter to a Sioux football game years ago and hearing chants of "Sioux suck!" from the opposing team's fans.
Tribal member Eunice Davidson, who runs a wholesale tobacco store on the reservation, sees nothing derogatory about the name. Nor does her grandson, who dreams of playing hockey for North Dakota. "He's in awe of that building," Davidson said. "He hates school, but he goes to school because of that: to play for the Sioux."
In the interim, Kupchella said, North Dakota officials continue to work behind the scenes to win the tribe's support for the nickname. They also filed a second appeal with the NCAA Executive Committee on Friday, arguing that the NCAA overstepped its authority with its policy and violated its contract with member schools. If that appeal fails, the question facing the university will be whether to keep the nickname and live with the NCAA restrictions (meaning Sioux athletes would never get home-field advantage during NCAA playoffs, among other things); change the nickname (some alumni are lobbying for "Fighting Sue," only half in jest); or file a lawsuit.
Newberry has decided to keep its nickname despite the restrictions, Zais said, but would be delighted to join other schools in a class-action suit if approached.
North Dakota's failure to win support of any Sioux tribe stands in sharp contrast to the deft politicking that has marked Florida State's relations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida since 1978. That's when the university abandoned its buffoonish Sammy Seminole mascot and sought tribal input in recasting everything about its game-day ritual, coming up with a Seminole warrior (wearing garb designed and sewn by a Seminole) riding a white horse and carrying a flaming spear.
"We work with them to make sure the representation is correct," Seminole tribal council member Max B. Osceola Jr. said. "It provides a cultural awareness that people might not have known about. If I had a child, and I named it after you, would you consider it an honor? I would."
So when the NCAA cast the Seminole name as "hostile and abusive" in August, Florida State officials reacted with a fury, marshalling the political clout of Gov. Jeb Bush; university president T.K. Wetherell, a former Seminole football player and speaker of the Florida House; and the school's vast alumni base. For good measure, they also retained noted constitutional lawyer Barry Richard. And Florida State became the first school removed from the NCAA's list.
"Nobody likes to be slapped down and told that they're bad when they know they're not," said Charlie Barnes, executive director of Florida State's Seminoles Boosters.
North Dakota's overtures to the Sioux, however, have been fraught with missteps and mistrust.
It didn't help relations in the eyes of many Lakota, Nakota and Dakota (as the Sioux classify themselves) that North Dakota hired a Chippewa artist to redesign the school's logo. The Chippewa are a traditional enemy of the Sioux.
North Dakota finally won conditional approval to use the name from the Spirit Lake Tribal Council in 2001 provided the university require all students to take a cultural-awareness course, but the course was never added so the support was withdrawn. Longie also recalls a yearlong campus review on the issue that never came to fruition. Instead, North Dakota's State Board of Education ordered the school to continue using the nickname, after Engelstad threatened to stop construction of his arena in December 2000.
"They went ahead and approved it without asking any of us Indian people," said Longie, 67. "It made me feel like Charlton Heston in that 'Planet of the Apes' movie. I had the ability to speak, but I wasn't even asked. It was as if I didn't have a voice."
With the NCAA refusing to relent, rumors are rampant in Grand Forks that the Engelstad Arena's days are numbered. Some believe Engelstad wrote into the lease that the structure would be razed if the Fighting Sioux name were replaced. Kupchella insists that's absurd.
As North Dakota's women's hockey team skates onto the ice for a preseason exhibition, a state-of-the-art sound system introduces each player by name. A $2 million scoreboard hangs overhead, and projected images of the Fighting Sioux logo glisten on the surface. There's no place spectators can direct their gaze without seeing a Fighting Sioux logo, so it's difficult to imagine the building's future if the name goes away.
Tom Buning, North Dakota's athletic director, considers the challenge. You could phase changes in over time, replacing logo-emblazoned carpets and railings as needed, he offers. One lucrative shoe contract would go a long way toward defraying costs. Buning gazes at the arena's ceiling, where the university's seven NCAA ice hockey championship banners are suspended, each bearing the Fighting Sioux logo.
"But how do you replace this history?" Buning asks. "Are we saying there was something wrong about all this? Were we so misguided?"
A University of North Dakota hockey player stretches during practice at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, where the team logo of the Fighting Sioux is carved into the seats, etched in glass and inlaid on marble walkways.