Students at UND’s American Indian Student Services Center Monday said they were angry and frustrated when the university failed to take any disciplinary action against groups of people who wore racially offensive shirts at the annual Springfest celebration Saturday.
Students posted pictures to social media sites of the shirts which depicted an Indian drinking from a beer bong with the words “Siouxper drunk” and another depicting an Indian with the word “sobriety” above it, which started an online dispute over whether the shirts were appropriate and what the consequences should be for the people who wore them.
But American Indian Student Services Director Leigh Jeanotte said he didn’t think the administration would make a strong enough response.
“Until there is a statement, until there is action, true action to say that this is wrong, hurtful and it shouldn’t be continued, it’s going to just keep going on and on and on,” he said.
Some UND students have since apologized on social media and UND President Robert Kelley released a statement noting Springfest isn’t held by the university and it’s unknown how many of the people who wore the shirts were actually students, but said he was “appalled.”
The event is organized by local eatery Rhombus Guys Pizza and co-owner Matt Winjum said even though he was out serving pizza all day, he didn’t see any offensive shirts.
“I saw a lot of shirts but I didn't see that one,” he said.
There was no mention of any investigation or consequences in Kelley’s statement and senior Damien Webster, an Indian Studies major, said he thinks university administration is allowing “open mockery” of Indian students.
“If this was against black students or Asian students, there would be a huge uproar about this, but there’s not,” he said.
Former Indian Studies Association Treasurer Dani Miller has been very vocal on Twitter about her disgust with the shirts.
“Originally I was very angry, but as time has gone by, I’ve gotten more disappointed and depressed by the situation,” she said. “I just don’t understand how someone could be that ignorant to think something like that is acceptable, and if that really is the case where they really are that ignorant and it never crossed their mind once, it speaks to the issues at this university.”
The story has circulated online on LastRealIndians.com where blogger Ruth Hopkins wrote “The ‘Drunken Indian’ caricature is one of the worst stereotypes about Native people that there is.” It also received attention on Twitter with the hashtag “#SiouxperDrunk.
Former ISA Vice President Jayde Serich said she was hit particularly hard because she has dealt with alcoholism in her family.
“It’s a disease, it’s not a funny thing,” she said. “I had to see a lot of my family go through that and it’s heartbreaking.”
Students have been encouraged to file written complaints to the dean of students office, but those who gathered to talk about the incident at the American Indian Student Services Center on Monday said they didn’t think it would do any good.
Jeanotte said he has gotten several calls from upset students who were disheartened when told to file the complaint.
“A lot of them say, ‘Why even do that? Nothing ever happens anyway,’” he said. “You get a little short statement that says it’s disrespectful and that's it.”
There have been several racist incidents on campus in past years, including the Gamma Phi Beta sorority holding a “cowboy and Indian” party in 2008 where students dressed up in stereotypical Indian garb.
That same sorority hung a banner outside last month which said “You can take away our mascot but you can’t take away our pride!” during a campuswide Indian educational event. The sorority members attended sensitivity training after the incident, but now the Indian community is saying that’s not good enough.
“We kind of thought we were moving forward, and then this happens, and we just get tired of this open mockery that is just allowed and there aren’t really any consequences to what they do,” Webster said.
In his statement, Kelley said the shirts weren’t worn at a UND function or on UND property, but encouraged those affected by the incident to seek help at the University Counseling Center saying “UND has a responsibility to promote respect and civility within the campus community, and we have the responsibility and right to speak out against hateful behavior.”
“The message on the shirts demonstrated an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community,” he said.
North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen also released a statement on the T-shirts, saying they showed “ignorance, intolerance and hatefulness.”
“I am indignant about the disrespect conveyed in the repulsive messages on those T-shirts and how this conduct hurts those insulted,” he wrote. “I am also angry about how this abhorrent conduct has reflected on the University of North Dakota and the entire University System.”
Webster said he always tries to take a step back from whatever the issue is and realize that young people make mistakes, but this time, it’s different.
“There’s a lingering logo issue but then there’s plain right and wrong,” he said, referring to UND’s retired Fighting Sioux nickname. “It’s wrong for Natives to feel on the defensive all the time because people can openly mock them.”
As the Twitter war waged on, some people called for a boycott of CustomInk, the Virginia-based company that made the “Siouxper drunk” shirts. The company allows customers to simply design their shirts online, order them and have them sent to their location.
CustomInk released a statement through their public relations agency saying they were sorry they allowed the shirt to be made and apologized for any pain or offense it caused.
“CustomInk’s business is focused on bringing people together in positive ways,” the statement said. “We handle hundreds of thousands of custom t-shirt designs each year and have people review them to catch problematic content, including anything that’s racially or ethnically objectionable, but we missed this one.”