Thursday, March 24, 2011

So Sioux Me

I usually try to keep politics and political stances away from this blog - we're an equal opportunity provider of RPI and college hockey news and information. Fortunately, most of the time we don't even get within a mile of political issues, but with a game with North Dakota now on the horizon, especially given what that game could mean for UND if they lose, there's an issue that I'd rather not just avoid - the Fighting Sioux nickname.

In response to continued pressure from the NCAA, among other entities, the University of North Dakota announced in 2009 that the nickname would be retired, a decision which has understandably upset the majority of UND supporters, given their dedication and love for the school's programs, especially when it comes to their flagship hockey program.

The argument put forward by the NCAA and those who have campaigned against the name is always pretty much the same: that calling the team the "Fighting Sioux" is somehow offensive or degrading to Native Americans. The term "hostile and abusive" was specifically used by the NCAA.

Before I get into whether that makes sense or not, let's look at the evolution of the rather American concept of having official team nicknames. During the turn of the 20th century, most professional teams didn't have nicknames other than those basically assigned to them by the newspapers that covered them. The "Yankees," for instance, grew from the fact that the team was New York's entry in the American League, a name that transitioned from the team's old name, the "Highlanders," which came into being due to the team's original stadium location at Hilltop Park in Manhattan. Both were originally used only by the media to describe them.

RPI had a similar occurrence that helped lead to their current name. The Institute's sports teams were frequently called the "Bachelors" in antiquity, perhaps in part because the school was essentially all-male at the time. That transitioned into the name the school currently uses, the "Engineers," naturally, because the school is renowned for its engineering programs and has always placed a very firm emphasis on that field of study.

We've had our own issues with nicknames (remember the chicken?), but at least ours weren't tinged with accusations of bigotry and racism - they were just an attempt to be more inclusive to other fields of study. Even that didn't go over very well, and this Lally School of Management graduate is quite satisfied with cheering on a team called the Engineers.

In North Dakota, the discussion went far beyond the one at RPI. Supporters of the Fighting Sioux name were called every pejorative in the book by those opposing it, with "racist" seeming to be the term du jour. Why? Are there too many assumptions being made?

In what way is the Fighting Sioux name "hostile and abusive" to the Sioux tribes? Teams and schools do not take on monikers to mock those which they associate with. Did Denver take on their name to be hostile toward the pioneers who explored and settled the west? Does Alaska's use of the Inuit word "nanook," which means polar bear, constitute abusive conduct since the term is sometimes used by the ignorant to refer to Arctic tribes? No, of course not.

And yet, for some reason, "Fighting Sioux" is. Whenever I've heard the name used, the imagery it conjures up should actually be considered flattering. When the Sioux tribes had their land, their way of life, and their very lives threatened by European expansion, they did not meekly submit. They resisted to the end. That is the spirit by which the Fighting Sioux name is quite clearly used.

The university has not used an actual "mascot" since the early 1970s, which was a good move to spike something that seems like it could be actually hostile and abusive. But now, at the conclusion of this season, UND has announced that they will be discontinuing the name, finally capitulating after decades of pressure, increased over the past 10 years by the NCAA (which, incidentally, is not pressuring the BCS conference Florida State Seminoles or the Illinois Fighting Illini to change their names).

Thus, if the Engineers emerge victorious on Saturday, it will likely spell the end of the Fighting Sioux era, and that's a true shame (not that it wouldn't potentially end two weeks later after the Frozen Four anyway, of course). The name has already been associated with seven national championships in men's hockey and is truly legendary in our sport.

It doesn't sound like they've settled on a new name. Some have suggested returning to the name "Flickertails," which is what was in use prior to the adoption of "Sioux" (basically cute little squirrels). Others, tongue firmly in cheek, have suggested the name Suhaki as a workaround, although that doesn't work real well for the university's other sports. (For what it's worth, the people behind "Save our Suhaki" have installed a method for finding out if your own name is "hostile and abusive.")

So, "Fighting Sioux" is "hostile and abusive," eh? OK, so that must necessarily mean that nicknames using groups of people are, by their very nature, hostile and abusive. Thus, to make amends for being hostile and abusive for so long, UND should change their name in order to be hostile and abusive toward the Sioux's greatest enemy instead. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the North Dakota Cavalry. It's a name that reflects the area's history and it even adheres to that fad that never quite went away whereby new sport team names do not end in "s." Best of all, it's hostile and abusive to those that drove the Sioux from their land. Just change the primary color from green to blue. Everyone wins!

Is my logic wrong? Whatever. They'll always be the Fighting Sioux to me - and I will continue to refer to them as such whether the NCAA likes it or not.

UPDATE, 6:04 p.m.: Hmm. This is interesting. Just reading now that a supermajority in both the North Dakota House and Senate passed on legislation to Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordering UND to keep the name Fighting Sioux, and that the governor signed the measure on March 15. I'm sure this will eventually cause another round of bellyaching by the NCAA - hopefully, the name is allowed to stand this time.


3 comments:

  1. I think "The Cavalry" is a great idea, sort of like if a team in the Middle East called themselves "The Crusaders" but I thought I had recently read that they were passing legislation to keep Sioux because one of the tribes was for it? (Similar to why the Seminoles are allowed to keep their name: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_mascot_controversy#The_Florida_State_Seminoles)
    I say, get rid of all human-based mascots. That includes the "Fighting Irish" and "Engineers" and "Saints" for that matter (because what if that is offensive to atheists?). All mascots should be animals or colors or inanimate objects. Then I'm sure we'll get some real winners (I never knew that there was a team called the "Peacocks" until this year, but I'm sure they look fabulous)

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  2. I never got the abusive part either. Yeah, the Chief Wahoo mascot for the Cleveland Indians was very stereotypical and a bit over the top, but if we get rid of the actual mascots -- which are a lot of the source of the problem -- then I don't get how naming your team, which is supposed to be representative of the competitiveness and ferocity of your team, can be construed as offensive.

    The best I can figure is that there are lots of people out there looking for reasons to be offended.

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  3. Great input from someone with an outside perspective. As someone that attended UND from 2000-2007 ( got a B.S. and M.S. :) ), it has been irritating to watch momentum grow against the nickname. I feel like the silent majority is finally really trying to put up a fight as evidenced by the email campaign to the North Dakota Legislature, subsequent vote and an "open" letter to the AD from a Sioux alumni (http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/197793/publisher_ID/40/). However, the law passed is most likely unconstitutional at the state level and the bureaucratic momentum will probably not be stopped. Might be too little too late. So even though I'm becoming a huge fan of this blog, go Sioux and lets get #8!!!

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