The Scrap Heap Of History

The NCAA made a huge error recently, taking a major hit to its credibility as a result. I’m not talking about its decision to ban Native American mascots and imagery at NCAA sponsored events, but rather backing down to Florida State and overruling itself on the use of Seminole imagery, especially Chief Osceola.

Now North Dakota has thrown down, obviously emboldened by FSU’s whining and the NCAA’s almost immediate capitulation.

If you’re going to make a bold, progressive move, and God knows the NCAA needs to make more of those, then don’t back right down in the face of resistance. Send Chief Osceola, the “Fighting Sioux” and the rest to the scrap heap of history where they belong, right next to Little Black Sambo, minstrel shows, and other racist symbols and imagery that, gradually over time, we’ve figured out are just plain wrong.

High schools and colleges have been abandoning this practice in droves in recent years, and the NCAA identified 18 holdouts and decided it was time to get tough. Well, tough for the NCAA anyway. On August 5, it issued an edict prohibiting racist mascots and symbols at NCAA tournament games. This was a shot across the bow at North Dakota, which is hosting the 2006 NCAA West Regional. In what was surely an in-your-face gesture to critics, UND’s Engelstad Arena is adorned with thousands of Fighting Sioux logos. As things stand now, they’ll all have to be covered up.

But FSU has persuaded the NCAA to change its mind, making the folks in Indianapolis look foolish. No new facts had come to light — Florida State had always claimed that it has the endorsement of the Florida Seminole tribe. That’s irrelevant, akin to allowing a sports team to be named “The Negroes” (or worse) because it was all right with the local black population.

In the case of Florida State, while local tribe leaders are on the bandwagon, enjoying the recognition and notoriety that the association brings, many other Native Americans, including a large number of Oklahoma Seminoles, find the depiction of Chief Osceola offensive.

A bit of a history lesson is in order. The first half of the 19th century saw three wars between the United States and the Seminole nation, eventually ending in the slaughter and deportation of all but approximately 5,000 Seminoles to Oklahoma. The great Seminole warrior Osceola was illegally captured under a flag of truce by U.S. forces, and died in a South Carolina prison in 1838.

“Osceola hated American expansion into Florida,” said Carol Spindel, a professor of writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “When he died in American custody, they chopped off his head for a trophy. Would he want to be a mascot?”

Osceola did not wear a headdress, ride a horse, or wear war paint, as he is typically portrayed by a white student during FSU football games. Yet, the Florida Seminole tribe (or at least the tribe’s leadership) is fine with all this. Did I mention the financial support they receive in the form of scholarships?

When it comes to financial support, North Dakota has its own troubled past with Native American symbols. Again, some history. The Sioux Nation (Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes) suffered the same persecution as the Seminole, cumulating the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The name “Sioux” was actually a French-Canadian name (“snake”) which was then used by other Native American tribes as a term for the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota.

Many historians assert that “Sioux” was considered an insult when used by these other tribes. The U.S. government later adopted the term as the official name for the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota. It’s ironic that these Native Americans did not choose this name for themselves and never referred to themselves as “Sioux” until after the US began to call them that.

North Dakota’s sports teams were known as the Flickertails until 1930, when, in response to a heated rivalry with North Dakota State (“the Bison”), the name was changed to “Fighting Sioux.” Documents in the UND archives show that honoring Native Americans had nothing to do with the change. The reasons given at the time:

1) Sioux are a good exterminating agent for the Bison.
2) They (Sioux) are warlike, of fine physique and bearing.
3) The word Sioux is easily rhymed for yells and songs.

— Dakota Student (UND student newspaper), 1930

There were no Native American students enrolled at UND in 1930, so claims that this had anything to do with honoring them are false.

Since 1930, there have been numerous calls to change the school’s mascot. While it is true that North Dakota has a larger percentage of Native American students than any other college in the region, virtually all Native American organizations on campus at UND oppose the current “Fighting Sioux” nickname. In 2000, 21 Native American-related organizations at North Dakota signed a letter opposing use of the nickname and logo, saying that it did not honor their culture.

This prompted UND President Charles E. Kupchella to form a commission to examine the elimination of the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo. Comments made by Kupchella during this time indicated that he was leaning towards changing the name. That all changed in a hurry when Ralph Engelstad, who had committed over $100 million to the construction of a new hockey arena, wrote the infamous “Dear Chuck” letter to Kupchella, threatening to pull funding for the area (which was already under construction) if the logo or nickname were changed.

Engelstad, the late crackpot billionaire casino owner, had been sanctioned and fined by the Nevada Gaming Commission for promoting a huge collection of Nazi memorabilia and for holding birthday parties for Hitler, complete with a painting of Engelstad in a Nazi uniform, and t-shirts with Hitler’s picture and the caption “Adolf Hitler — European Tour 1939-45”.

But $100 million is $100 million, so the “Fighting Sioux” keep on fighting, despite the protest of literally dozens of Native American and human rights groups around the world.

It all comes down to respect. These schools claim that they are honoring Native Americans by using them in this way. Ridiculous. The Sioux never asked for this honor. A place of “higher education” should understand that honor is in the eye of the beholder. It is up to Native Americans to decide how and if they are honored, not the other way around. And many, many are not, but rather insulted and offended to be trivialized and dehumanized in this manner. Enough, certainly, to end the practice.

These places of higher education need to teach that it’s offensive to persecute a race of people, and then use their symbols to prance around at sporting events or adorn their team’s jerseys. To draw an analogy, it would be like a German soccer team “honoring” local survivors of the Holocaust and their ancestors by naming their team “The Fighting Jews.”

We will eventually see the day when most people realize how foolish and insulting these practices are. UND and other institutions can keep putting their fingers in the dike of social justice, but it’s a foolhardy and ultimately futile effort. They should know better, and the NCAA should, too.