The University of North Dakota has decided to challenge the NCAA and its threat of sanctions for using Native American names and symbols for its sports team. The UND is bringing back its traditional nickname of the “Fighting Sioux” and said that it will take whatever punishment is meted out by the NCAA. Various universities have withdrawn such names except schools like the the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas who received tribal permission to keep their nicknames.
In 2006, the NCAA called on 19 schools with American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots to drop them as “hostile and abusive” to local tribes.
I must confess that I have never been convinced that some of these team names are disrespectful or racist. To the contrary, the team names often idealize the fighting spirit of the tribes. While I strongly believe that these universities have to take active steps to guarantee that the depiction of the tribes are respectful, I do not see why there should be sanctions for the use of all such names or images. I do not doubt that some mascots can be hostile or culturally abusive, but I do not believe that any use of such a name or image is inherently hostile, abuse, or disrespectful. For example, the decision to bar the use of “Chief Illiniwek” by the University of Illinois killed a long tradition at the school that honored that image. I realize that many would disagree with me on this and I am concerned that some Native Americans do take offense at the use of such images. However, I am not convinced that they should have a veto on the use of names and images that are closely connected to these areas. Under the NCAA rules, the schools must get permission from any tribe to use such images. However, the opposition to such symbols has extended to even generic symbols of American Indians. The question is whether a name or image like the Sioux should be treated as essentially proprietary or exclusive for the current members of the tribe or whether it is an image that part of the entire community and its history.
From the Vikings to the Cowboys to Packers to the Fighting Irish, local communities often select powerful images connected to their communities. These tribes are idolized in American culture and inspire people with their strength and dignity. They are selected for those positive elements and the schools often make students playing roles like Chief Illiniwek study the culture and adopt authentic elements to their outfits and dance. Critics of the use of the image make some very good points. It is also true, as some advocates have argued, that “In the time when the mascots were created — the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — the United States populace did not have a positive view of people of color.” However, that does not mean that they are used today in negative way or cannot be used in a positive, even educational, way.
Some Native Americans do support the use of the symbols though many do not. These views should be given great weight but they are not determinative in my view. I felt the NCAA should have left this matter to the individual communities to hash out whether the use of such images are disrespectful or abusive. I might support the elimination of some images or practices, but it should be done on a case-by-case basis. If a tribe opposes such use of its name, that would weigh heavily in my own judgment. The makes the use of Sioux a close question for me, but I do not believe that the decision to eliminate Chief Illiniwek was warranted.
UND President Robert Kelley noted that the issue will be placed on a state referendum and that the school should wait to see the results of that legal and political process. A law requiring the school to use the nickname was repealed eight months after it was enacted to avoid NCAA sanctions. However, there has been a demand to put the issue to a statewide vote. The State Board of Education has suggested that it may fight the move to reinstate the law.
Of course, I come from a city that roots for the Blackhawks. Putting aside the legal questions of North Dakota state law, what do you think about the ban on any use of Native American names or images?