Charles Kupchella: UND’s Surprising Nickname Warrior

University of North Dakota president Charles Kupchella has emerged as one of the NCAA’s staunchest critics of a policy that punishes some of the association’s member institutions for using American Indian nicknames, mascots and imagery in athletic competition.

Back in early August of last year, when the NCAA Executive Committee announced its plans to implement the policy, Kupchella seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a charge to save UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. However, he has since demonstrated that the popular perception of him as a university president who was wrongly denied the opportunity to change UND’s moniker is, at best, flawed.

From early 2001 until last August, it was widely held that Kupchella would have changed UND’s nickname if not for a threatening letter from wealthy Sioux hockey benefactor Ralph Engelstad, who died in 2002. That letter was quickly followed by intervention from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education which required UND to retain the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, a policy that remains in effect.

Today, Kupchella explains, “It never came down to me doing one thing and them (board members) doing something else. The only issue I had with the board’s decision was that if they were going to make it, I wished that they would have made it sooner.”

So where did the idea originate that Kupchella was on the verge of changing UND’s nickname and would have done so had not Engelstad threatened to halt construction on a $100 million hockey arena he was building for the school? An article in the Feb. 23, 2001, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education claimed Kupchella was “increasingly open to the idea of phasing out the name.”

The evidence of Kupchella’s intentions cited in that article and in many since is a quote from a Dec. 16, 2000, e-mail he sent to the chairman of the State Board of Higher Education. “I see no choice but to respect the request of Sioux tribes that we quit using their name, because to do otherwise would be to put the university and its president in an untenable position,” Kupchella wrote.

But in an interview with USCHO, Kupchella explained the e-mail quote is often taken and used out of context. He said the statement represents “a fragment of what was really a very thorough, comprehensive consideration of options.”

The sentence was lifted from a 16-page e-mail that outlined various scenarios on the nickname issue and solutions for dealing with them. The potential loss of support from both Sioux tribes in North Dakota was but one of several possible scenarios, Kupchella noted.

“However, we had within days of that exchange, a unilateral resolution of support for permission given to us by the Spirit Lake Tribal Council, signed by members of the council that said, ‘Hey, it’s okay with us if you use our nickname provided that you do it respectfully and some good comes of it.’ That took that argument or that scenario off the table because that’s our nearest Sioux tribe,” Kupchella recalled.

This conditional approval from the Spirit Lake tribe remains a cornerstone of UND’s case against the NCAA. The association granted appeals to Florida State (Seminoles), Utah (Utes), Central Michigan (Chippewas) and Mississippi College (Choctaws) because tribes in those states gave permission to use their names.

Kupchella also rejects the notion that he was “bullied” by Engelstad.

“Ralph and I got along just fine,” he said. “There were some moments when we disagreed about things.”

One of them was which logo the Sioux hockey team should use. When Kupchella became UND’s president in 1999, the team used a geometric design of a Sioux chief in profile. Engelstad wanted to return to the logo taken out of use by UND in the early ’90s, the same logo used by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.

“Ralph wanted to use the Chicago Blackhawks’ logo,” Kupchella remembered. “And I said, ‘No, we’re going to find something nicer.’ I wanted something less cartoony, and he was okay with that.”

Thus, American Indian artist Bennett Brien, a UND graduate, was commissioned to create the more respectful and dignified logo design that Kupchella wanted. That logo, used primarily by UND’s hockey team, remains today. Thousands of examples of it adorn the Engelstad Arena, inside and out.

When Kupchella unveiled the new Sioux logo in 2000, the move didn’t sit well with some of UND’s American Indian faculty and students. It re-ignited the nickname controversy that’s simmered on the university’s campus for more than 30 years.

As a result, Kupchella created a commission to study the issue and said he would make a decision on the nickname’s future based on the findings. But after months of research and discussion, the State Board of Higher Education made the decision for him. Still, he wasn’t disappointed with the outcome.

“We had a good airing of the issue,” he said. “It was a great education for me.”

The lessons of that education are what continue to drive UND’s and Kupchella’s David-and-Goliath battle with the NCAA.