Puck politics

A Hitler-celebrating alum's cash convinces a North Dakota university to keep its degrading Indian mascot.

Published March 8, 2001 9:14AM (EST)

They've been playing out a neat little version of "Faust" in hockey-mad Grand Forks, N.D. The angels should consider pulling the goalie. Right now it's Mephistopheles in a rout.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are the defending NCAA Division I hockey champions. As with schools and professional teams across the country, the Indian nickname and logo have been a source of controversy since the '70s. That controversy came to a head over the Christmas break, when the state's Board of Education voted suddenly and unanimously to keep the name -- one day after learning that changing it would cost the school a brand new hockey palace.

The battle lines were drawn in the usual places, with Indian activists and their supporters claiming that the name and logo -- a man's head in profile wearing a feathered headdress -- are racist and offensive to Indians, and supporters of the name and logo, including 82 percent of students in a recent poll, claiming the images in fact honor Indians, and are part of the proud tradition of the school. (Although the word "Fighting" has received some attention in the national press, it's really beside the point, writes sportswriter Rob Lein in the Bismarck Tribune, since "nobody who's ever uttered the phrase '40-below keeps the riff raff out' has ever called them the Fighting Sioux. North Dakotans call them the Sioux.")

Last year, university president Charles Kupchella formed a commission to study the issue. There were indications, such as an e-mail message that was released later, that Kupchella was leaning toward a change. Enter Mephisto, dasher boards left. Ralph Engelstad is a Las Vegas casino owner and a major donor to the University of North Dakota, where he was a goalie in the late '40s. He's also a guy who's been fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Control Board for damaging the reputation of the state by holding, in two separate years, private Hitler's Birthday parties at his casino, complete with a swastika cake, German food and marching music, bartenders wearing T-shirts with the words "Adolph Hitler European Tour 1939-45," and a life-size portrait of Hitler inscribed "To Ralphie from Adolph, 1939." He says he despises Hitler, and that the parties were merely "spoofs" meant to celebrate new purchases for his collection of Nazi memorabilia.

Ha! What a card!

Anyway, Engelstad had donated $100 million to the university, mostly in the form of building a state-of-the-art, $85 million hockey arena for the powerhouse Sioux. The 11,400-seat arena, with 48 luxury boxes, would be capable of holding nearly a quarter of the population of Grand Forks and, like the facility it would replace, would be called Ralph Engelstad Arena. In December, Engelstad wrote a letter to Kupchella saying that he would withdraw funding from the project if the Fighting Sioux name was changed. The building was about half built. (Rather than donating the cash up front, Engelstad was paying for the construction as it went along, then planning to donate the arena to the university.) He said he would let the elements have their way with the unfinished building, and consider the $35 million already spent a business loss.

The next day, the North Dakota Board of Education, which received copies of Engelstad's letter, stepped in and preempted the Kupchella commission's process, voting 8-0 to keep the name. So much for the old classic Faustian dilemma. This was more like a Faustian blue-light special. "They've now put a price tag on racism," said Vernon Bellecourt of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media. "It turns out the price tag is $85 million."

Board of Education members and school officials said there were other factors involved in keeping the Sioux name, including the sentiment of the student body (American Indians, at 3 percent, are the school's largest minority) and the fact that dropping the name might endanger alumni donations to the school, which is already struggling financially. Just this week Kupchella went hat in hand to the Legislature, asking that $14 million cut from his proposed budget be restored. He says the school loses professors because it can't pay competitive salaries.

Kupchella seems to be a decent man who's really struggling with this. And UND has a good record with American Indians. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the university has established itself as a major center of Native American education. There is an Indian Studies major among the 25 American Indian programs on campus, and the school claims that one in five American Indian doctors has come through its Indians Into Medicine program.

There are good and honest people on both sides of this issue. And some of them are wrong. The bottom line is, the Fighting Sioux name is offensive to the people it purports to honor. It's often useful in these matters to consider how you'd react if the same thing were happening to a different set of people. So try replacing the word Sioux with the word "Jews" in the next paragraph.

When the Sioux play their arch rivals, the North Dakota State Bison, State fans chant "Sioux suck!" and other similar slogans, one of which used to be painted in huge letters on an abandoned barn next to Interstate 29. North Dakota State fans wear T-shirts that show a stereotypical Sioux character between the legs of a bison. The shirt reads, "We saw. They sucked. We came."

The name has to go, whatever the cost. And it will go eventually. This is one of those arguments that seems difficult to resolve now, but won't someday. History is clearly on the side of the people who believe that naming athletic teams after ethnic groups who find the practice offensive is wrong. Someday, just as thousands of school teams that used to be called the Indians and the Chiefs and the Redskins are now the Knights and the Eagles and the Redhawks, the University of North Dakota will no longer be the Fighting Sioux.

The university should change its teams' name now and tell Ralph Engelstad to keep his money and buy some more Nazi collectables with it. If the money can't be raised to finish the hockey arena (and how many people would be willing to donate to a school that so spectacularly did the right thing?), it should be left to stand -- with his name attached -- rotting and rusting in the North Dakota snow as a monument to the idea that some things are worth more than money, and some people's money isn't worth taking.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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