Voices of American Indian UND studentsSeven UND Indian students gathered recently at American Indian Student Services to tell their stories and explain why they resent a nickname and logo revered by so many, including many Indian people.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Will Crawford, 20, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, came to UND to study atmospheric science. He hopes to work one day for the National Weather Service.
“I had a class in high school,” he explains, smiling. A good class, apparently.
While other Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes of the Great Sioux Nation have chosen to hold onto the name Sioux, the Santee Dakota people of the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeast South Dakota voted in 2002 to change the tribal name to Oyate, the Dakota word for people or nation.
Like many other American Indian students at UND, Crawford would like to see the name “Fighting Sioux” consigned to history, too.
“I went to a hockey game with some white friends,” he said. “I watched that intro clip, which is supposed to honor us. It was weird because of the environment. There was a guy with a beer in his hand looking at me, and he pointed to the screen as if to say, ‘See? See how we’re honoring you?’ ”
Crawford said he felt demeaned, not honored. The Fighting Sioux nickname and logo are hurtful, he said, encouraging stereotypes that box Indian students into a false identity. The name and warrior image contribute to an atmosphere on campus that can be “hostile and abusive” to Indian students, he said, as the NCAA alleged in its campaign to ban Indian logos, nicknames and mascots.
“Fighting Sioux” is a term of respect, nickname supporters respond. Its use is meant to honor the Sioux, their history and traditions. Confused by what they see as mixed messages from the Sioux people, some nickname defenders have reacted angrily to its impending retirement, ordered by the State Board of Higher Education.
Some call for a withholding of donations to UND, an end to Indian programs and elimination of tuition assistance for Indian students.
Indian students “have historically had low retention levels at colleges and universities,” said Mikki Kozel, program coordinator at UND’s American Indian Student Services. “This nickname complicates that. It creates targets out of them, and they don’t want that.”
Linda Neuerburg, assistant director of the office, said the harm to Indian students is real — she cites studies by psychological associations — and the harm extends far beyond the campus.
“It makes things difficult for high school students out there,” she said. “It makes things difficult for grade school students out there. This is psychologically damaging to Indian people.”
A great sadness
Seven UND Indian students gathered recently at American Indian Student Services to tell their stories and explain why they resent a nickname and logo revered by so many, including many Indian people.
Crawford talked about a cousin who enrolled at UND at his suggestion.
In two of his cousin’s first classes, teachers tried to open up a dialogue on the logo issue.
“All the students around him wanted to keep the logo,” Crawford said. “Some were angry and said things like, ‘Take away their tuition.’
“He was the only Native in the class, and he didn’t say anything. He was upset — not angry upset, but more disappointed. It was like he didn’t belong. He was really homesick.”
The story trailed off. Crawford’s gaze fell to the ground, and a friend spoke up.
“You felt like it was your fault, didn’t you?” Amber Annis-Bercier asked. “You got him to come here. You told him to go to school here.”
He also told about an experience at Wilkerson Hall, the dining area, shortly before the annual Wacipi Time Out, a weeklong Indian-organized celebration featuring a powwow, dancing, music and discussions.
“I was sitting with friends,” he said. “At the next table, there were five students, and four of them were wearing the Sioux logo. There were cards on the table announcing Wacipi, and one of the guys with the logo took out his keys, shook them as he beat on the table and made whooping sounds.
“They were mocking my culture, a culture they don’t know anything about, and they put me in a situation that was very uncomfortable. My friends asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I just sat there and looked down.
“There was a girl with those guys. I heard her say, “Shhh … There’s one right there.”
“It’s demeaning, and it’s divisive,” Annis-Bercier said of the nickname. “The UND campus is divided. Tribal communities are divided. Families are divided.”
She is 33, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. A 1995 graduate of Grand Forks Central High School, she will receive a degree from UND later this month. She plans to do graduate work in American Indian studies, then teach.
“I saw a young woman walking on campus, wearing a shirt that said, ‘You’re in Sioux Country,’ ” she said. “I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her what it means to me when I go home and I cross that border and I really am in Sioux country.
“I think I will say something if I see that shirt again. It’s worn with so little knowledge. … It’s like a love-hate relationship people have with us. They have ‘pride’ in American Indians, but they’re always talking about Indians in the past. … They don’t know us.”
What of the two-thirds of voters at Spirit Lake last year who endorsed UND’s use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, and the 1,000-plus people at Standing Rock who have signed a petition asking for a chance to vote?
“The people of Spirit Lake and Standing Rock who don’t have people here on campus — they don’t know about the offensive T-shirts, the signs, the daily stereotypes,” she said.
“It’s confusing for younger people. I took my daughter to see a dentist. He had a Sioux jersey with the logo on a wall, with a pair of crossed hockey sticks. ‘What’s that?’ my daughter asked. ‘I like hockey,’ the dentist said. And she said, ‘Indian hockey?’ ”
Divisions on the reservations are largely generational, B.J. Rainbow said, and those divisions are fanned by outside interests who show little interest in evolving Indian culture. “It’s the old ‘divide and conquer’ approach,” he said.
A Marine veteran who served in Iraq, Rainbow, 29, is a large man who wears his hair in a braid and makes a point of walking shoulders up, gaze straight ahead.
“People don’t come up to me and say anything,” he said. “I’m a big man. They’ll stare to beat hell, though, especially if my hair is in braids.”
The nickname and how it is celebrated cause non-Indians to see him in a certain way, he said, “and nobody is going to tell me what kind of Indian I am.”
He will graduate in August with a degree in criminal justice, Indian studies and sociology, and he hopes to get into UND’s master’s degree program in sociology.
His long-term objective, he said, is to study historical ethnic music.
What do people who declare “Sioux pride” know about that music, he asked. What do they know about trade routes, or traditions of hospitality, or the sense of community that shapes tribal governance?
“I feel SO honored,” he said.
Sierra Davis, 22, is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.
She expects to attend graduate school in public health. In 2006, she interned with the National Indian Health Board in Washington, D.C., where she “got to see tribal leaders from all over Indian Country.”
She is eight months pregnant, her first child.
“I walked into a lab one night, and someone was saying, ‘I don’t understand why they don’t feel honored.’ I walk in, and it’s all quiet. It set a really awkward tone the rest of the time I was in that class.
“They put me in a box, and that’s how they know me,” Davis said.
“I’m really interested in American Indian health, but nobody cares about that. I was studying for a biology test, and a student asked me about the logo. ‘Why are you against it?’ They ask and they ask and they ask, and it gets exhausting, trying to explain yourself all the time. It’s like talking to a wall. At times, it gets ugly.”
Even if the nickname and logo were always used with respect by UND fans, Davis said, the symbols “allow other schools to incorporate racism into their school spirit.”
‘I’m not Sioux’
Frank Sage, 40, of the Navajo Nation, is a graduate student in sociology and wants to teach at a tribal college.
Sociological research lags on reservations, he said, because many researchers are unaware of taboos and traditions, ways of approaching elders and how to ask certain questions. He understands the taboos, how to cross lines respectfully.
Sage has lived in Grand Forks for 10 years, and the Fighting Sioux logo has always bothered him. “That logo is not preserving the Lakota language,” he said. “The logo is not preserving the traditions of the Lakota people. It’s the Indian people here who are doing that.
“My first semester here, I felt the same as Will’s cousin. I didn’t know about the logo. A teacher brought it up in a class on conflict. Other students expressed their opinion and then looked at me. ‘I’m not Sioux. I’m Navajo,’ I said. But they think if you look Native you should respond.”
Judging by his own experience, Sage believes that many incidents of bigotry go unreported. “I run a lot. I was out running one day, and a truck came up, slowing down as it approached me. The window was rolled down, and a guy yelled, ‘Go back to the reservation!’
“As they spun off, he pumped his fist and yelled, ‘Go Sioux!’ ”
Hurting for family
Liz Luger, 23, grew up in Grand Forks but spent time every summer at Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock reservation. She also has family ties to Spirit Lake and visits there frequently.
She was disappointed that so few non-Indian students participated in last month’s Wacipi.
“They had a chance to prove themselves to us, to show they do honor us,” she said. “Instead, they protested,” as nickname supporters held a walk nearby the night of a powwow.
“My sister goes to school at Dartmouth College” in New Hampshire, she said. “She came here to do one semester. I found her crying one day. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked her. She said, ‘I can’t take it here. All these people wearing Fighting Sioux clothing all the time — and they don’t know anything.’
“I think I’ve got a hardened shell because I’m around it all the time. But she felt ostracized. She hated it here.”
There have been taunts and angry words, Luger said, and slurs that take a deep toll, whether shouted or whispered.
“Something I think a lot of people don’t understand: When a non-Indian says something about Indians, it hurts not just the person who hears. You think of your family. You hurt for them, too.”
Emmy Scott, 24, came to UND from the Winnebago Indian Reservation in Nebraska. She is Arikara on her father’s side.
A junior majoring in political science, she wants to go to law school and work on issues of tribal sovereignty.
Both of her parents attended UND. When Ralph Engelstad Arena opened in 2001, Scott, then 15, went to the exhibition game with her mother.
“Mom and I thought, ‘Let’s have an open mind about this.’ We hadn’t really decided on the logo at that point,” she said.
The arena was packed, and loud. “Ralph was there,” Scott said. “It was like God was there.”
A woman sitting behind her kept leaning in and yelling, “Go Sioux!”
“It was in our face,” Scott said. “It was aggressive. Other people were staring at my mom, who has dark skin, and that really bothered me. I wanted to get out of there. As we left, everybody turned and stared. I went to a bathroom and cried. I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of my family, and I cried.
“In a lot of ways, our lives are dominated by this. That’s why it was such a relief when the state board acted. We can move forward now.
“I believe that when Native students come here in the future — not next year but in five years, maybe — people will have forgotten about it. Native students can just be themselves. They can go to sporting events. Have fun. Be normal.”
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.