This is the problem with Native American mascots

"Accolades go to Summit League officials who have decided to steer clear of the University of North Dakota. People associated with the UND have for too long ignored the fact that the athletic team's mascot, logo, or whatever term you want to use – the Fighting Sioux – is offensive to a great number of people who have lived for several generations now in the Great Plains."

I wrote that last January, shortly after Summit League officials visited USD here in Vermillion.

Later in the year, in May, I noted in my column that I had more good news to report. North Dakota's Board of Higher Education had agreed that month to drop the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo.

The bad news, I noted then, was that this change didn't come about after an intense session of soul-searching on the part of North Dakota education officials.

It took a decades-long campus dispute about whether the name demeans Native Americans, and pressure from the NCAA and ultimately, the Summit League, to finally convince board members that the nickname and logo are wrong. In other words, if you think this change represents a generous act of human kindness on the part of North Dakota higher ed personnel, think again.

Judging from some of the comments I received following my May column, not everyone in the Vermillion community was crazy about the change.

Supporters of the Fighting Sioux logo, whether they be in North Dakota, Vermillion, or elsewhere in the nation, stubbornly claim the Fighting Sioux mascot harms no one, that those who object to it are overreacting, that the mascot is, in fact, meant to honor a race of people.

Should you be among those who believe this mascot is something that elicits a sense of pride among all people that live in the Great Plains, just put yourself in the shoes of a Native American who views the above piece of art. Really uplifting, isn't it?

Reproduced above is the cover of a depth chart that went out to a select audience at the UND-Texas Tech University game this past weekend. The cover includes five characters: Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, Chancellor Kent Hance and Texas Tech's mascots the Masked Raider and Raider Red, all chasing an American Indian on a horse running scared.

In the context of the ongoing debate over the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname, which some believe is racist, any Indian caricature becomes a loaded image. "I don't think the image represents the University of North Dakota the way we would like to be represented," UND spokesman Peter Johnson said in a story that appeared in the Sept. 9 INFORUM, the Web site of the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, "but I also think it's impossible to control the behavior of opposing teams."

The first Texas Tech heard there might be a problem was on game day Saturday, according to INFORUM. Some UND officials, including athletics' top spokesman Sean Johnson, told their counterparts at Texas Tech that they weren't comfortable with the image.

Cook said the officials weren't bothered with the Indian fleeing as much as the fact that an Indian was used. This was confusing, he said, because he thought the Indian was UND's mascot, yet UND didn't want it used.

At UND, Johnson explained that there really is no mascot. There's the Fighting Sioux nickname and there's the Indian head logo, he said, but there's no mascot.

Mascots are different because, at least in the case of Indian mascots, they're intended to be representations of human beings and caricatures of human beings, which is at the root of the conflict over the nickname.

The logo issue has had a long, controversial history that makes one wonder why UND officials are so bullheaded about keeping it.

The debate has run hot and cold for years, but reignited in 2005, following a decision by the NCAA to sanction schools with tribal logos and/or nicknames, including UND, that the NCAA deemed to be "hostile and abusive." On Oct. 26, 2007, a settlement between UND and the NCAA was reached preventing the case from going to trial. The settlement gives UND three years to gain support from the state's Sioux tribes to continue to use the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has officially disapproved of the use of the Sioux logo.

It's the 21st century. Surely it's time for UND to find a more fitting, less controversial athletic symbol.


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