COLUMNIST DORREEN YELLOW BIRD: Time to let the nickname go

Retire the "Fighting Sioux" nickname. Enough verbal stone throwing.

American Indian people have a history of racial problems with our non-Indian neighbors. It wasn't long ago when Indian people were followed around in stores because storekeepers thought we might steal something. We couldn't get loans; we couldn't write checks; we weren't allowed to buy alcohol, name calling was accepted -- we were thought of as second-class citizens.

Through the years, change came to our communities. But those changes were slow in coming -- and the nickname hampers this positive change.

The results of the nickname referendum at Spirit Lake seemed to say that everyone at Fort Totten, N.D., supports the name. Not true. There are many who don't support it.

Furthermore, logic also will say that nickname supporters themselves wouldn't stand behind the nickname if they faced some of the comments that surround it. For example, in an e-mail in response to a column some time ago, I was called a "drunken, lazy Indian," a "prairie nigger" and other derogatory names. The Herald itself restricts comments on nickname stories because those comments tend to get so inflammatory.


When Indians come face-to-face with this bigotry (the way students and others in this area have), whatever support they may have had for the nickname vanishes.

I realize that many Indians, nickname supporters and opponents alike, have experienced friendship and good feelings while in this area. That's good. I also know there are thousands of people -- many times more than the cads who make rude and offensive remarks -- who are respectful and good people.

But the fact remains that there are those with that kind of mentality, and that given the opportunity, they will disrespect and dishonor Indians.

Should the Lakota and Dakota have a voice through a tribal referendum? Hmm, I thought when I read the Herald editorial that suggested this. Nickname supporters already have a very loud voice, it seems to me. In fact, it's the voice that already gets the lion's share of the attention in the Herald and other media outlets.

It's been tough for nickname opponents, including Indian people, Indian students and others, to get their words heard. Their voice gets drowned out, and they have little monetary support. Yet, they face an army of supporters with big names and deep pockets.

A tribal vote isn't tied up in a nice, neat bow. There is misunderstanding about what the nickname means between those who work and study at UND and those who live on reservations or have little connection with the university. I say this because I have relatives and friends on both the Lakota Nation at Standing Rock and Dakota at Spirit Lake.

For example, some of my relatives tell me that taking the nickname away will mean Americans Indians will disappear from public view. Losing the nickname would take away a marker that Indians have in history, they say.

But what the name does is continue the negative stereotypes of the past.


Also "Fighting Sioux" means to them that they are warriors, and they're proud of that. They are, indeed, correct: Indian people are warriors. American Indians fought bravely from time we met the white man to the days when we fought alongside them in World War I, World War II, Vietnam and so on.

Indian men and women weren't afraid to go to battle. The "Fighting Sioux" name touches something in us. It reinforces bravery, which we prize and honor.

But somehow, when the name is used as part of a sporting event, Indian people become a caricature of a warrior, a symbol of savagery. And if the name is continued -- even if it is leavened with history lessons, powwows and the like -- there still will be bigots for whom the words "Fighting Sioux" call to mind stereotypes and visions of the days when relations between Indians and non-Indians weren't so good.

This issue reminds me again of the distance between the cultures of American Indians and non-Indians.

I say, let's take the high ground, and let the Fighting Sioux name rest in peace.

What To Read Next