North Dakota’s Racial Reactionaries Lose One

Sometimes I can go for weeks in the delusional state of mind that there is nothing that wealthy white men can do to surprise me anymore. I was rocking along in one of those multi-week periods when the walls of my delusion tumbled down with a twister from North Dakota regarding the long debated name change for the university mascot, the “Fighting Sioux.”

Most of you are no doubt familiar with the ongoing discussions around the racially charged names of various sports teams. These debates have been in headlines and courtrooms for decades. With the most notable case being the professional football team in the nation’s capital. After decades of foot dragging and with much chagrin, the NCAA took a firm stance in 2005 regarding names referencing Native Americans. Any team using names deriving from or describing Native Americans must either cease using the name or receive official permission from the relevant Native peoples. After more foot dragging and maneuvering, virtually all colleges changed their mascot names. A select few such as the Florida “Seminoles” received permission from the tribes to use the title.

The North Dakota university alumni tried very hard to achieve the same goal. Much money was spent in lobbying tribal leaders and hiring people to promote the idea to tribal members. In the end, only one group of Indians could be persuaded to allow the continued usage of the name. There is much debate in Indian Country about how even that level of agreement was achieved. The other group, the Standing Rock reserve, refused, repeatedly. Backers continued to promulgate the fiction that the name was an honoring to Native people. And one prominent legislative backer even claimed, “I just feel the Sioux Indians were not treated with respect. They were not included in any of the wording of the NCAA agreement. They were virtually given an ultimatum.”

Let’s just clear up a language issue here. There were no Sioux Indians until this man’s ancestors created a misnomer for the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people. The word Sioux is not Lakota, it is derived from a Crow Indian word meaning enemy. We are asked to believe that this man who lives on land stolen from these peoples in bloody conflict mere miles from where they live in abject poverty and suffer the shortest life spans of any group in the country honestly cares about whether or not they were a party to the NCAA agreement. It is curious that it is only years after the agreement that he finds this a problem. In fact, they were not given an ultimatum. They were given the opportunity to express their resistance to wealthy white appropriation of all things native and they did.

The NCAA stuck to its guns and its August 15, 2011 deadline. Not to be deterred, the wealthy white alumni, one of whom was a former Republican Speaker of the State House, passed a bill, which the Governor obligingly signed, making it a state law for the University of North Dakota to have the Fighting Sioux as their mascot. In this same legislative session, bills expanding hate crimes punishment and protecting children from bullies were defeated. They were completely committed to continuing to embody and glorify centuries of racial hate crimes, so I suppose it should not be a surprise that they are less interested in protecting vulnerable groups and children from hate.

The blind structural necessity of dominating native peoples, and of proving the inherent might and right of wealthy white men, led them to pass this law even though the NCAA would impose sanctions, forbid events to be held at the university and disallow them to wear the logo in any NCAA games. Keeping this logo would mean their long awaited entrance into the Big Skye Conference would be jeopardized. Still, the legislature passed the law, the governor signed it.

The NCAA didn’t blink. So, just for today, wealthy white men were forced to back down to the will of a small band of willful Native Americans who refused to give their permission to be discounted, disrespected and appropriated. In July 1881, driven by hunger and disease among his band, the great spiritual and war leader Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, North Dakota and was transferred to the Standing Rock Agency. 120 years later, the Lakota of the Standing Rock Agency refused to surrender. And, surprisingly, so did the NCAA.