The University of North Dakota is between a rock and a hard place.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has ordered the school to drop its “Fighting Sioux” moniker and accompanying regalia. The state of North Dakota demands that its flagship university retain the nickname and iconic Indian-head logo. If UND satisfies the NCAA, it breaks state law. If UND obeys the law, the school faces athletic sanctions.
A meeting between the NCAA, state officials, and university administrators will take place on August 12. Three days later, the NCAA may initiate sanctions.
The August 15 deadline looms. Whatever the decision, the university will invoke the wrath of a powerful entity.
“The NCAA’s Native American mascot policy remains in effect, and we stand ready to assist the University of North Dakota with its implementation of the policy,” the collegiate athletic sanctioning body announced last month. “If the University of North Dakota continues to use the nickname and logo past the August 15 deadline due to state law, it will be subject to the parameters of the policy. This means the university could not host any championships or use the nickname and logo at any championship events.”
The NCAA bans logos and nicknames it deems “hostile and abusive” from appearing in postseason contests. Since the policy’s implementation in 2005, the nicknames targeted as “hostile and abusive” to the ethnicities they ostensibly pay homage to have been uniformly monikers and logos that reference Native Americans. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Holy Cross Crusaders, the University of Southern California Trojans, and scores of other team names that conjure up bellicose ethnic imagery have escaped the NCAA’s blacklist.
Efforts to ditch the “Fighting Sioux” predate the NCAA policy. In the midst of building a $100-million-dollar arena (which opened in 2001) for the school, alumnus Ralph Englestad threatened to cease construction because of the possibility that the school’s president would kill off the nickname. “I do not understand where one person gets the authority to make this kind of a decision on behalf of all alumni, students, the city of Grand Forks and the state of North Dakota,” Englestad wrote then UND President Charkes Kupchella. He bluntly continued, “It’s a good thing that you are an educator because you are a man of indecision, and if you were a businessman, you would not succeed, you would be broke immediately.” To ensure the Fighting Sioux’s survival, Englestad directed thousands of difficult-to-remove Indian-head logos to be inscribed, imprinted, emblazoned, and embossed throughout the pricey sports complex. With pressure relieved from the death of UND’s most generous donor, and under added pressure from the NCAA, the North Dakota board of higher education voted to drop the name and logo in the spring of 2010. This prompted the state legislature to pass a law retaining the Fighting Sioux name.
High school, college, and professional sports team nicknames commonly reflect local lore (’49ers, Minutemen, Sooners) or an ethnic group associated with the area (Celtics, Canucks, Yankees). North Dakota, with one of the highest percentages of American Indians of any U.S. state, differs in this regard only in the group, i.e., Native Americans, on which it focuses local pride. And then there is the overlooked issue of the school’s other name. Should the NCAA succeed in the erasing “Sioux,” the word Dakota—referring to the largest subset of Sioux—would persist in the school’s name. Academia can make the Chief Illiniwek and Little Red mascots vanish. But Illinois and Oklahoma remain. Put another way, why feign umbrage at state university nicknames but not the actual state names to which they refer?
The Dutch don’t take offense at the professional basketball team from New York. Neither Hispanics nor Catholics have protested the San Diego Padres. Scandinavians aren’t outraged over Minnesota’s NFL franchise. Evidence, anecdotal and statistical, suggests that Native Americans aren’t really bothered by team names that evoke their heritage, either. Though scant polling data exists, Sports Illustrated surveyed Native Americans almost a decade ago on the subject. When queried if sports teams should cease using Indian nicknames, greater than four-fifths of Native Americans responded “no.” The Spirit Lake Sioux, to cite one example, actually sued North Dakota’s board of higher education to block the body from jettisoning the Fighting Sioux nickname.
But it is the Professional Indian, rather than the average Native American, whose opinion counts to the NCAA. Every time the Dartmouth Big Green or the Marquette Golden Eagles take the field/court/pitch/ice, political correctness lets out a cheer. For the NCAA, the only good Indian nickname is a dead Indian nickname.