'Fighting Sioux' debate leaves University of North Dakota nameless in Frozen Four
Gophers, Eagles, and Dutchmen will take the ice in the Wells Fargo Center this weekend, but the University of North Dakota men's hockey team will be known merely for the state from which they hail.
UND is currently between nicknames, having been mired in a debate over its "Fighting Sioux" moniker since the '70s, until it was voted out in 2012. A state-mandated "cooling off" period will take place until 2015, when the school can select a new name.
UND's is a lesser-known tale in the sports world, where stories like this have become common. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s ongoing fight to use the “Redskins” moniker has grown to the point that even the president has weighed in.
ESPN’s Rick Reilly gleefully opined the irrelevance of the debate, citing the opinion of his father-in-law, a Blackfeet elder, that the whole thing was “silly.” The father-in-law in question, Bob Burns, later rebuked the statement, claiming Reilly twisted his words to fit his own narrative.
Then, baseball season opened, and we were greeted with this political cartoon come to life in Cleveland.
"We still do the cheers at games and stuff," says UND junior Erik Spiegeler. "The students will forever be the Fighting Sioux, but we also respect the rules and everything."
The rules, set by the state legislature, say the discussion for a new nickname cannot even be whispered until next year. Even after that point, some will hold onto the Sioux name, as ingrained as it has become in the local culture, which is barren of a pro sports franchise to call its own.
"I actually grew up in Minnesota a huge Gophers fan," says Spiegeler. "You always sort of knew about it, following college hockey in Minnesota. So I knew about it, and I guess I didn’t ever really think it’d go away."
There are two Sioux reservations in North Dakota; the Spirit Lake Reservation and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which stretches into South Dakota. The many others are charted through South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, and go north into Sasketchawan and Manitoba. In North Dakota, they house the Upper Yankatonai tribe, which makes up 5.4% of the state’s total population, according to the 2010 census.
The Dakota territories are haunted with Native American stories from the old west, many of which include the word “massacre” – the Buffalo Gap Massacre, the Massacre at the Stronghold, the Wounded Knee Massacre. White men were shocked when their 1892 execution of 38 Sioux set off a conflict that is now known as the “Dakota Uprising.” All of this occurred within boundaries of the states the very names of which, “Dakota,” are taken from a loose translation of the Yankton word “Nahkota,” meaning “allies.”
By 1930, 40 years after Wounded Knee, the University of North Dakota was looking for a new mascot. Its choice at the time, the “Flickertails,” (a type of squirrel) was not inspiring enough intimidation to the school's liking, especially with the rival North Dakota State Bison nearby. The administration settled on “Sioux” for a few reasons:
- "Sioux are a good exterminating agent for Bison.”
- "They are warlike, of fine physique and bearing."
- "The word Sioux is easily rhymed for yells and songs."
By 1999, attempts to remove that nickname had gone on for decades. At the same time, having established a culture of success among adoring fans, the school's flagship athletic team was to be rewarded with a new home, courtesy of UND alum and former goalie for the hockey team, Ralph Engelstad.
Engelstad, owner of the former Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip, offered the school $100 million for a new hockey arena. This came with a predictable stipulation: The “Fighting Sioux” name had to remain or he would pull back his funding.
He drove this point home by having thousands of Sioux logos embedded in the new facility, siding with those who considered the name an honor of the Sioux people, and making removal a costly prospect.
But Engelstad’s past included some details that didn’t inspire confidence in his empathy for other cultures.
“The university said it had concluded the parties were meant only as a joke,” reported the New York Times in 1988.
Engelstad’s Vegas casino had been the venue for shindigs thrown by Engelstad in 1986 and 1988 to “boost employee morale.” The parties occurred on or near April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and featured bartenders in t-shirts reading “Adolf Hitler -- European Tour 1939-45,” a painting of Engelstad in Nazi attire with the caption, “To Adolf From Ralphie,” and a cake with a swastika on it. The décor came from Engelstad’s personal collection of Third Reich souvenirs, which included a Nazi staff car and Heinrich Himmler's Mercedes-Benz. Engelstad had reportedly been interested in acquiring Hitler's limo from the Canadian War Museum in 2000, but that interest was later refuted.
None of this stopped the arena from opeing in 2001 at a cost of $104 million. Despite the controversial logo and nickname, the facilities were lauded by hockey's greatest player. Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky called the 11,000-person arena "one of the most beautiful buildings we have in North America."
In 2002 -- less than a year after Ralph Engelstad Arena opened -- its benefactor and namesake passed away from lung cancer.
Three years later, under increased pressure to take the complaints of Native Americans seriously, the NCAA put together a list of schools whose mascots seemed to cross the threshold of decency. The Fighting Sioux made the list.
After failed appeals and legal logjams, UND was given three years to convince the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes that their nickname was acceptable. Spirit Lake deemed the name acceptable with a 2/3 majority, but Standing Rock would not even bring the issue to a vote.
"The issue was more that they didn’t like the 'Fighting' Sioux part, and that’s why a lot of these jerseys just say 'Sioux' on them," explains South Dakota resident and UND fan Chad Alberson. "The 'Redskins,' to me, is a little bit more offensive. The 'Sioux' isn’t a slang – that’s their tribe name. And I understand that they were a little upset about the 'Fighting' part."
Following several periods of frantic appeals, repeals and reversals, the “Fighting Sioux” name was retired in a state vote during the 2012 primary election, with the looming threat of NCAA sanctions hanging over the university’s head. The Sioux would be allowed to wear their jerseys during the regular season, but would be forced to abandon them in the playoffs or risk forfeit.
Talking to alumni and students at Thursday's Frozen Fest kicking off the Frozen Four, the consensus seemed to be that the issue was sensationalized by outsiders; that those in the community felt the logo was always used in high regard, and admit that it was pitfalls on the part of a few students that toxified what was supposed to be respectful, such as a "cowboys and Indians" party held in 2008, and a banner put up on campus this past weekend reading, "You can take away our mascot but you can't take away our pride!"
"The school did not buckle initially; they really tried to bring out more of the pride part of it," says Alberson. "You run into a lot of problems – I don’t know if you saw that picture of the Cleveland Indians guy – but you have students get drunk and they dress up like chiefs, and…”
"We did not, by the way, have a mascot," says Wayne, a UND fan and North Dakotan who would only give his first name. "We're not Florida State; we don't have a white man ride out on the field painted red and throw a flaming spear." (Florida State has been granted permission by the Seminole tribe to perform this ritual, which serves as a symbol, rather than a mascot who performs routines).
He points to the logo on his jersey, which was designed by Bennett Brian, a UND graduate and member of the Chippewa tribe. "This is a noble logo. This was held in the highest regard by the state of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota fans. It was never meant to be denigrating, hostile, or abusive. If you go to Bismarck, you see Standing Rock tribal members; if you go to Devil's Lake, you see Spirit Lake tribal members - they wear this. They wear this Sioux gear, proudly."
Steve Lance spent eight years at UND, getting his undergrad and medical degree from 1990-98.
"As an alumni, it seemed like what was being portrayed from it being negative, I didn’t really see that," he says. "I was there for eight years and I thought it was very respective and very well done, very professional. It seemed like it was a bigger issue outside the campus than on the campus."
"It’s good to kind of put an end to it as well. I think a lot of people, of anything, a lot of people had the wrong idea. But nobody wants to upset anybody. "
When the carpet in the Ralph Engelstad Arena is replaced, it won't be with the same Sioux logo-patterned material. Eventually, the Sioux will exist on faded jerseys and scuffed marble floors, paved over by new generations of UND hockey with a different face.
Some fans can imagine a worse scenario.
"I'm from the area," says Alberson, "and I’d rather be a Sioux fan than a Minnesota Gopher fan."