In 1930, the University of North Dakota changed the name of its sports teams from The Flickertails to The Sioux (and then later, the “Fighting Sioux”), presumably because a flickertail is a type of ground rodent and the Sioux were considered to be a tribe of Indian “warriors.” Also, their teams’ archrivals are the “Bison,” and what better mascot to wipe out a bison than an Indian? (Given that irony is not favored in athletic departments, i.e., “The Fur Traders” was not considered.) Three years later, and two thousand miles away, a professional football team changed its name to The Redskins.
Both the Sioux and the Redskin names and logos have been challenged. Last week, a federal judge in North Dakota granted a temporary restraining order against the state board of education’s attempt to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname. And earlier last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a decades-long case against the Redskins-not because The Court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion of the logo’s racial insensitivity (which would bar it from trademark protections) but because the claim was brought so long-25 years-after the Redskins trademarked the name.
While the Redskins debate is fairly straightforward, the Fighting Sioux case is characterized by paradoxes and ironies. That a debate about the offensiveness of a logo depicting people who once freely roamed the central plains area is being settled by stuffily-named committees in cheap folding chairs under florescent lights. That “Sioux” itself was a derogatory term from the French. Or that the “Dakota” in “North Dakota” refers to the region’s natives so “North Dakota Fighting Sioux” is a lexiconic absurdity. That the Fighting Sioux name was chosen to replace Flickertail because of the perceived fearsome nature of the latter; yet, the Sioux were systematically exterminated and subjugated while flickertails still wreak havoc on the region’s settlers. Or that logo-defending rhetoric about maintaining “tradition” conveniently overlooks that it was tradition that was changed to accommodate the Fighting Sioux logo. Or that the logo that “honors” the Sioux has changed over the years from a cartoon to an image also used by the Chicago Blackhawks, ostensibly to honor the Blackhawk tribe. Most absurdly, the ruling by the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires the University of North Dakota to secure approval from the state’s two Sioux tribes for at least 30 years, essentially meaning it has to get approval that the logo does not offend right now.
At the heart of the matter is “The Ralph,” a hockey arena named for its patron, the late Ralph Engelstad, whose donation of $100-million is still one of the largest ever in the history of college gifts. A former UND hockey player, Ralph was once one of the richest men in America and owner of the Imperial Palace casino in Las Vegas.
At the turn of the millennium, Ralph was dying (not of shame). With the future of the Fighting Sioux logo grim, he did what any rich crazy person would do and wrote the university president a letter about the status of his generous donation:
If I walk away and abandon the project, please be advised that we will shut off all temporary heat going to this building, and I am sure that nature, through its cold weather, will completely destroy any portion of the building through frost that you might be able to salvage… Please do not consider this letter a threat in any manner, as it is not intended to be. It is only notification to you of exactly what I am going to do if you change this logo and this slogan.
Surprising only to those who had no knowledge of the threat (which was everyone), the state board of higher education reversed its long-held position that the logo was offensive. “Fighting Sioux,” scheduled for mothballing, was revived. The whole subtle letter is available online as a black eye to higher education. Also, just to be sure, Ralph had thousands of Fighting Sioux logos placed throughout the arena, including a massive marble inlay one, so as to make removal prohibitively expensive. (A bit of trivia: It was the Chicago Blackhawks-like logo that Ralph wanted UND to re-adopt to “honor” the Sioux. When the idea was nixed by the UND president, the current logo, an approximation, was commissioned. A coincidence then that Engelstad’s hockey career peaked with a tryout offer from the Blackhawks? Looking at the two together it’s easy to see the
Finally, it’s noteworthy that the attorney who filed the restraining order on behalf of several North Dakota Sioux just happens to have done work for the Engelstad Arena in the past. Engelstad spokespeople insist this is a coincidence.
American Indian Cultural Support estimates that about 2,500 kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools use American Indian mascots. Then there are the colleges and professional teams. In recent years, many schools, faced with requests from the American Indian community, have quickly and willingly changed their logos. Many, many others have not.
So, are these logos offensive? Maybe. Certainly some are, such as Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo. But in general, nobody agrees at even the most basic level: many who believe one logo is racist see a similar one as acceptable. Further exacerbating the complexity is that many American Indians themselves see variety, agreeing that a logo like the Fighting Sioux is inoffensive while that of the Washington Redskins is racist. Or that a logo may be offensive but as long as it has the approval of the tribe, it’s acceptable. A further complexity is that even if a team name itself is not overtly offensive, it invites offensive statements from “fans” and even national media outlets, such as the Washington Post. Then there is the awkward merchandising, such as the opportunity to wipe one’s feet on an image ostensibly honoring a people.
There are several popular defenses for continued use of such symbols.
To get a better understanding of the reasoning of supporters, I spoke with two of North Dakota’s popular writers on the Fighting Sioux mascot. First is that these logos “honor” American Indians. This reasoning is used in both the Fighting Sioux and Redskins cases.
I started by asking The Whistler, a syndicated writer for Say Anything, what he would say about how some might find this an odd honor for a group that has seen little in the way of honor in any other form.
“I don’t believe in any sort of collective guilt. What some people who are dead did to some other people who are dead is irrelevant. Another factor is that by the standards of their time what happened was being done all over, even by the Indian tribes themselves. I’m just saying that things were different back then and if we go to correct historical wrongs where would we ever end it? Cain and Abel?”
In 1887, Congress established the Indian Trust. Probably as early as 1888, the American government began dishonoring that agreement. The trust incorporated millions of acres of Western land once owned by individual American Indians. Believing these people could not effectively and reliably manage the wealth these lands would certainly soon produce, the Department of the Interior was installed as trustee. In simple terms, the US took the land, promised to act as the executor of the trust, and then more or less never returned any calls. The fact that the Interior Department maintains an Indian Trust site that claims “We have proposed an initiative to improve and fix the Indian trust program” should be about all one needs to know.
A Native American leader named Elouise Cobell sued for the mismanagement of the trust’s royalties. The case has been ongoing for, it seems, as long as the trust has existed (actually since 1996). In a ruling on the case, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote: “What remains is the raw, shocking, humiliating truth at the bottom: After all these years, our government still treats American Indians as if they were less deserving of the respect that should be afforded to everyone in a society where all people are supposed to be equal” and that the Interior Department was “the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago.”
Lamberth was rewarded by being removed from the case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which claimed he lost his objectivity. Lamberth was succeeded by Judge James Robertson who, in 2008, wrote that the Interior Department had “unreasonably delayed” the case and that “a remedy must be found for the department’s unrepaired, and irreparable, breach of its fiduciary duty over the last century.” At the time of Robertson’s ruling, he was the tenth circuit judge who had been involved in the case whose docket had 3,504 entries. He compared the case to Bleak House.
The Bush administration (as with the administration before) had, to date, “honored” the government’s responsibility for mismanaging the trust by fighting the case tooth and nail, going as far as attempting to remove judges. Congress strangled the Interior Department’s funding, effectively gumming up the process of finding an adequate accounting (of this move, Judge Roberts criticized Congress for an “unwillingness to fund such an enterprise”). It’s an incredible case that finally got its due in an eviscerating cover story Parade magazine… published Sept. 9, 2001.
And while the case is not yet over, the original amount sought (tens of billions of dollars) has been whittled down to an award of $455 million, which works out to honor every possible claimant to the tune of about $900. Keep in mind, this is not a case about reparations for government-sponsored genocide, which will never come to pass. This is a legally-documented trust of Indian holdings in timber, oil and resources that the U.S. agreed to manage and then proceeded to gut. Our defense? Those records are all gone, so how can we pay anyone? So, as The Whistler said, it all happened between people who are long dead and not worth revisiting, right?
I also spoke with Goon, a columnist for for Illegal Curve and other Sioux sports sites. He said:
“Many Native American have said they think that the Fighting Sioux name is an honor and are very proud of it. Being in North Dakota, I see a lot of Native Americans wearing Fighting Sioux hats, shirts and jerseys. So do we disregard these people’s opinion? Why is a vocal minority speaking for the whole Sioux Nation? I have seen Native Americans talk disrespectful about the Native Americans that are for the Fighting Sioux name. Also, a lot of the people that are against the Fighting Sioux name are white liberal professors or native Americans that aren’t even of Sioux decent.
Like many who support the Fighting Sioux nickname, and American Indian logos in general, Goon and Whistler often point out that those offended are “a very small vocal minority” and that an “overwhelming majority of Indians” are “in favor of sports teams using their names for their team names.” They back these claims up with surveys and polls. These include an April 2009 Spirit Lake tribe of North Dakota Sioux referendum, in which 67% of its members voted to retain the nickname, and a 2002 Sports Illustrated survey that found 81% of American Indians didn’t find such nicknames offensive.
What everyone who cites the Sports Illustrated poll fails to mention is that the 81%number was for those Indians living off reservations. For those who lived on reservations, that number drops to 53%. Meanwhile, a 2005 poll found that 61% of North Dakota American Indians (and 95% of overall state residents) were “not offended” by the nickname. (It’s noteworthy that in supporters’ rhetoric, poll numbers based on “not offended by” questions were characterized as “support for.”)
The polls cited by both Goon and Whistler demonstrate anywhere from, at most 37% (Goon) to, at best, 19% (Whistler) of a group of people are offended by the names. I asked both if this was the case. Of the 37% of Spirit Lake tribal members finding the Fighting Sioux logo offensive, Goon said, “The Tribe has voted and that’s acceptable to me.” Whistler agreed. He said, “One final thing with the poll is that a lot of the people against it have been influenced by the loud minority over what they should decide. I’m not saying the poll is invalid, but I think some peoples opinions have been influenced by the antis. In the absence of any public debate (the time is of course past for that), I think even more would support the name.”
This “vocal minority” or “very small vocal minority,” to use their language, is something like 1/3rd of American Indians in North Dakota.
Of Whistler’s reasoning, it’s especially noteworthy that when he finds himself in the minority, he sings a different tune, very vocal tune. For instance, his criticisms of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND); Dorgan was opposed by about 32% in his last election.
American Indian logo supporters often appeal to “democracy” to settle the issue. Voting is America’s foundation, right? But as anyone who is not a member of a majority knows, resolving ethical or civil rights issues by majority vote is not the least bit American. Certain residents of California and, recently, Maine understand this well.
But what makes the “honoring them” line hardest to swallow is that America’s effort to honor American Indians doesn’t seem to extend past using them in iconography to represent our sports teams.
American Indians rank at the bottom of nearly every social statistic: highest teen suicide rate of all minorities; highest rate of teen pregnancy; highest high school dropout rate; lowest per capita income; highest unemployment of any American demographic. Newscasters go crazy about areas of Michigan with near 20% unemployment. Yet, un- and under-employment at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation is more than 70%, compared with something like 5% for the state overall. And Standing Rock is not the worst.
A 2003 United States Commission on Civil Rights study assessing federal funding for American Indians found extreme disparities in the areas of health care, transportation, public safety and education. And yet, under Bush, American Indians were “honored” by the reorganization of the Department of the Interior’s trust fund management structure. Cuts included more than $7 million for Indian housing programs and more than $4 million for Indian home loans. Bush then broke the back of American Indian entrepreneurship by dismantling tribal business information centers, the Small Business Authority’s only program targeting American Indians. He tried to cut all funding for North Dakota’s United Tribes Technical College. The Army Corps of Engineers re-launched large water projects that have been identified as threatening sacred sites.
Then in 2008, Bush took his hatchet again to Indian housing services grants, going after 15% of its funding, about $100 million. The cowboy capped it all off, in one of his only public mentions of American Indians, by “honoring” them for getting preferential consideration at the University of Michigan: “…some Native American students receive [extra points] not because of any academic achievement or life experience, but solely because they are Native American.” Had Bush been in his prime, he would have made that speech at Illinois or Florida State… or North Dakota.
These economic insults are dwarfed by the travesty that is public safety on Indian lands. Justice Department data says that 30% of all American Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes. And thanks to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant vs. Suquamish, only federal prosecutors can prosecute crimes on reservations. Because they are not exactly high on the fed’s priority list, rapes are almost never prosecuted. The 1978 ruling also means that tribal police (of whom there are few) can often only prosecute American Indians, not off-reservation offenders. This essentially means that, in some parts of the country, anyone can go onto a reservation, commit a crime and most likely get away with it. It is unsurprising then that the Justice Department says that about 80% of reservation rapists are non-Indian men.
In the end, tribal police turn the rape cases over to the feds, who decline to file charges in nearly three of every four. It is estimated that about half of all murders on tribal lands also never see prosecution.
To return to logos, one great irony of the North Dakota Highway Patrol is that their emblem features the symbol of Red Tomahawk, “a Teton Dakotah (Sioux) Indian who lived on his land near the Cannonball River on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Mandan, North Dakota.” The Highway Patrol is largely not allowed to police Standing Rock.
For more information about how reservations in the United States can make our worst, most blighted urban centers look warm and inviting, check out Herbert Hale’s story or, better, Matthew Powers’ outrageous “Ghosts of Wounded Knee” in the latest Harper’s.
It’s worth mentioning that tribal governments themselves, often insisting on independent jurisdiction even at the expense of maintaining order, bear some of the blame for the utter preposterousness of such a public safety “system.” But again, they’re not the ones claiming to be honoring anyone. And while many say these atrocities on tribal land are solely the fault of the tribes themselves, recent Obama administration actions and comments about “making good” are evidence to the contrary, such as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s recent remarks about the “federal government’s pattern of neglect” and Obama’s goal to motivate the justice department “to improve public safety on tribal lands.”
The most popular, most common defense of the use of American Indian logos is “but, but, the Fighting Irish!” While there is the matter of Notre Dame selecting the name for itself as a Catholic institution with Irish roots, this reasoning is far more flawed.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish comparison should, if anything, testify to the offensiveness of American Indian logos. From a social level, there was never an attempt in the US, both locally and on the part of the government itself, to exterminate the Irish. The fundamental point of American Indian logo usage is that these logos “honor” people we largely tried to kill by any dirty mean available. One wouldn’t expect to find a Turkish basketball team called the Marching Armenians or a Srebrenican hockey team called the Battling Bosniaks. There is no other people so singularly “honored.” Except the Fighting Irish. The Irish logo should be the exception that proves the rule. Instead, in typical reactionary logic, it is the rule. For a comprehensive collection of research and commentary on this issue, visit Blue Corn Comics, a publisher of comics focused on American Indians.
The fundamental bizarreness of the logic supporting the use of American Indian logos logic is evidenced when the subject of other American Indian logos is raised. I asked Whistler and Goon about their thoughts on Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo and the Washington Redskins.
“Chief Wahoo is negative, it’s a cartoon character, and I can see the reason people think the Washington Redskins is offensive but the Fighting Sioux logo is not portrayed in the same light, it was drawn by Ben Brien, a person of Chippewa decent and who is married to woman of Sioux decent.”
“I haven’t been a NFL fan for a lot of years, although I was a fan of the Redskins during the Hogs area. At the time I didn’t think that the Redskins name was a negative in any way. Now I wouldn’t call an Indian a ‘Redskin’ today, but given the tradition of the name I don’t see that being bad.”
The fetishization of American Indians is by no means the sole province of athletic programs. Commercial interest from Indian Motorcycles to Leinenkugel Brewing Co. to Land O’Lakes Dairy leverage American Indian iconography to sell products with no relation at all to native culture or history. Halloween costumes and other debris round out the inheritance of insult. But the athletic logos are the most widespread and most egregious simply because they are employed by organizations whose foundations are predicated on equality, opportunity and absence of the inescapable judgment, habit and bigotry of the “real world.” We are so quick to see it, even when maybe unintentional, in political cartoons, Vanity Fair covers, “chink eyes,” protest posters, Australians, illegal alien costumes, sports movies, Nick Douglas Internet theories, movie posters and other nation’s outrages. Asian women trigger our outrage but not Indian faces?
Can anyone even imagine a world where “Indian” is interchanged with another people in features editor Jaine Treadwell’s recent, hard-to-believe-it-got-published ruminations for The Troy Messenger (“Circle the wagons, the Indians are coming“) and it still gets published?
Were the Fighting Sioux logo the only of its kind, a lot of this might be easier to swallow. But the American Indian logo whole is more offensive than the sum of its fighting, brave, warrior parts. It’s the pervasiveness. The Sioux or Seminole or Illini or Braves or Redskins or Chiefs cases are always fought individually, with no reference to how they might impact the whole. It’s always: “Does the Redskins logo offend?” Not: “Does the widespread use of American Indian logos for sports teams reinforce a single, one-dimensional stereotype and offend?”
And while the use of American Indian logos for sports teams stinks of a legacy of discrimination, their defenders smell of the cult that sees anti-political correctness as reason. Like almost every progressive achievement in the United States, the fight to retire the use of American Indian logos is opposed by a population of white male reactionaries with persecution complexes. Within the last year, the U.S. did what a generation ago seemed impossible, and elected a black man. He happened to be born around the same time as the passage of the Voting Rights Act-a law that, interestingly enough, probably would have died in individual state referendums. And now that man holds post-racial “teachable moment” beer summits on race in a city with a professional sports franchise named “Redskins.”
Abe Sauer still likes sports though.