Appropriation for the Nation: Athletic Mascots Essay Example

  • Category: Sports, Sports games,
  • Words: 2371 Pages: 9
  • Published: 06 September 2020
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Racial appropriation has been a widely discussed in the past few years, especially concerning sports team names. The branding of many professional sports and university athletics revolves around mascots who could potentially carry negative connotations, but many fight to keep their legacies. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began to penalize these teams for their appropriation within the evolving standards of society. 

Specifically, the University of North Dakota’s (UND) Fighting Sioux nickname found itself in a battle. The NCAA deemed the Fighting Sioux athletics program as hostile and abusive, leading to the retirement of the mascot and replacement by the title “Fighting Hawks.” Critics argue that the use of the old name places Native people, as a collective, under a violent connotation and tarnishes their reputation. The words “fighting” and “Sioux” are disputed as either being expletives that function as slurs against the Native culture or complimentary characteristics of the university’s community. 

Despite these negative allegations, the symbolism of the Fighting Sioux logo and support of alumni have kept its legacy alive. The institution of UND has held respect and pride at the apex of its Fighting Sioux logo; carrying more than just a name but a community. There should not have been a change to the Fighting Sioux name because it holds a respectful history with the university, symbolizes more than a single people, does not imply a slur nature, and is a means of cultural celebration for Sioux tribes. 

George H. Walsh established the University of North Dakota in 1883, intending to bring an educational establishment to the area and boost the reputation of Grand Forks, ND. While being a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, he worked to build and unify the community especially with the surrounding Sioux tribes. However, upon its founding, the university began under the name “Flickertails.” The now infamous Sioux mascot would not be adopted until later, circa the 1930s (History of UND). The later change to “Sioux'' came as a gift from the surrounding tribes as an acknowledgement to how the university has benefited the Native members of the area.  

Since that initial identifier as the Sioux, the university has gone through several logos, but kept its symbolism and depiction the same. One problem that did arise was the changing opinions and standards of society over the years. Controversy noticeably intensified around 1999, after Native American artist Bennet Brien released a new and improved logo design. The logo was accepted by the university and found itself plastered across UND’s campus, specifically the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Upon the construction of the 100 million dollar ice complex and training center, Engelstad threatened to revoke his donation if the mascot was not maintained. The university agreed and the complex came to fruition in 2001, grossing millions of dollars in revenue, over the years, hosting various collegiate sporting events (Mundahl). Unfortunately, in 2005, the NCAA prohibited colleges with hostile or abusive mascots from hosting any NCAA championship competitions and UND was on that list.  

After toggling back and forth and accepting feedback from the community, the university saw a name change as the only way to maintain their position in collegiate athletics as well as pleasing those who are upset by the school’s “hostile and abusive” mascot. The next step after the official reformation of the name was the replacement of old logos around campus. The rebranding of Fighting Sioux institutions have impacted the community and their response to the change has been split. North Dakota removed the Fighting Sioux name and Indian head logo from its staff uniforms, athletic jerseys, website, etc. 

However, around 2,500 Sioux logos still remain throughout UND’s Ralph Engelstad Arena as well as the statue of Sioux chief Sitting Bull on horseback just outside the complex. One marker that cannot however be removed is the pride of the fans. It was documented that,“The University of North Dakota led NCAA Division I men’s hockey in attendance for the seventh year in a row in 2017-18, drawing nearly 240,000 fans through the gates of Ralph Engelstad Arena”(Albertson). Unsurprisingly, a majority of the fans who attended were in Fighting Sioux attire. This is partially due to the fairly new and limited stock of “Fighting Hawks” merchandise, but is also a representation of the alumni and fans who understand the value in their old mascot. UND cannot restrict the fans’ apparel, however, it continues to rebrand its facilities to please the agreement between the university and the NCAA. 

The re-imaging is one step in moving forward, although UND is still at odds when it comes to keeping its trademark. The federal trademark law requires North Dakota to continue the commercial use of Fighting Sioux or risk outside vendors flooding the market and profiting from knockoffs. Despite these complications, assimilation to the change is not coming easily, but gradually. The former North Dakota hockey captain Scott Sandelin attended a booster event for the team and was met with immediate applause after stating,“Always nice to be back among the Fighting Sioux fans”(Borzi).

 Months later, Mike Mannausau, a former linebacker and assistant coach, expressed that,“It’s probably closer to 50-50 or 60-40 on people ready to turn the page, tired of fighting this, and let’s move on.” He goes on to say,“We have to celebrate our heritage. This was a part of U.N.D. for a long time, and it’s not going to go away. But if we handle it properly, we can say, O.K., this is our base, this is our heritage, this is what we stand for, and now we’re transitioning to the new. And in the future, that’s where we’re going to be”(Borzi). Among fans and alumni, it is evident that the change has been observed, but that will not change the pride some have in cheering for their Fighting Sioux. 

A sense of pride was also felt by the logo’s creator, Native American artist Bennett Brien. Prior to Brien’s creation in 1999, the Blackhawk logo (1964) was removed from jerseys following turmoil in 1993. Brien saw the loss of this symbol and dedicated six years to perfecting a piece that would provide a source of representation for his culture as well as aid UND’s credibility as a school. The university needed to be taken seriously and not scrutinized over its mascots so in 1999, Brien unveiled his new design. On his website, Brien delves into the symbolism behind his piece:

The feathers symbolize the outstanding rewards that students, faculty, staff and alumni will achieve for academic, athletic and lifelong excellence. The determined look in the eyes symbolizes fortitude and never giving up and the focus necessary for sustained academic, athletics and lifelong achievement,…The paint on the cheekbone symbolizes that life can be a battle and we have daily struggles. The color green symbolizes the development of young people and their growth at the University of North Dakota. The color yellow symbolizes the sun, which provides humanity light and warmth in order that life may continue. The color red symbolizes the lifeblood that has been poured out to make our state and peoples great (Brien). 

The depiction of the Native American goes beyond the superficial image and into an artist’s  vision for representing both the Sioux and the university’s culture. If this symbolism were publicized in a wider scope, the argument for name change may have been reassessed and its “hostility” could be dismissed. Considering that the design was created by a member of the Native American community should also solidify the fact that the logo’s imagery sole purpose is to provide a respectful depiction of the university’s namesake. 

Tribal approval is varied although Spirit Lake tribe expressed their understanding of the logo and approval for its usage. Circa 2010, Spirit Lake’s spokesperson, Frank Blackcloud, conversed with a Bismark television station about the solidarity of an agreement that was made upon the universities founding. Mr. Blackcloud elaborates that the Spirit Lake tribe granted, UND permission years ago [.T]his was a gift and that’s what the NCAA doesn’t understand. Nobody has the right to take that gift away except a Sioux tribe and the only reason we would take it away is if they were doing dishonor to the Sioux name and they aren’t doing that. They are holding it respectfully and with honor and in its tradition—and are doing everything proper(Indian Country Today).

Blackcloud seems appalled by the persistence of the NCAA to take this name which his people have entrusted in the university. The use of Fighting Sioux has always been respectful and makes him feel proud of his heritage. With the backing of his people, the Spirit Lake tribe filed an injunction towards the NCAA’s case. The tribe issued the injunction in the hopes of keeping the Fighting Sioux name at UND as well as obtaining the legal rights of the licensing and merchandising of the brand. 

However, two tribes, Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux, make up a collective when it comes to the NCAA’s dismissal of the name change case. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a resolution against keeping the name. Unfortunately, the decision remained split as petitions by Standing Rock members did not persuade the tribal council in keeping the name. In late 2010, a 10-4 reaffirmed the opposition to the name by Standing Rock tribal representatives (GrandForksHerald). Clearly, there are two sides to the argument, however, there is no denying that there is pride amongst the tribal communities involved. Some feel their reputation is being upheld while others believe it is being torn down. This claimed slandering of the Native culture is arguably attributed to the origin of the word and its ability to be considered a slur. 

Supporters of the name change rally around the classification of the “Fighting Sioux” as a slur that brings derogatory and offensive connotations. Looking at history“‘Sioux’ is a French interpretation of an Ojibwa name for snake or devil, and many Natives find this term offensive”(Thomason). With this information, many other sports teams have also decided to drop their mascots for more socially acceptable symbols. 

Some examples are Stanford, Syracuse, Miami University, Ohio, University of Louisiana-Monroe, and several others. These changes can account for the “‘Two-thirds or over 2,000 ‘Indian’ references in sports eliminated during the past 35 years,’says The National Congress of American Indians”(Huber). The decrease was mainly due to names including identifiable slurs that attacked either the characteristics of a people or their nature. However, the Fighting Sioux was not meant as a suggestion to violence, but rather an affirmation of determination and strength.

Slurs have two origins, initially meant to be offensive or a neutral/positive word that experiences pejoration and becomes a slur. However, both will carry a negative connotation towards a person or group of people. Pejoration is commonly seen over time as words experience a degradation of their original meaning and generally change from a positive or neutral sense to a negative. A professor of cognitive science and language, Bergen elaborates that, “People find slurs offensive. For some slurs, this is nothing new: they were built to offend from the outset. It’s their reason for being. As far as we can tell, Ching-Chong is and always was a term of offense. Same with wetback, sand-nigger, camel-fucker, and so on. And just as there are typical sources from which profanity in general draws, particular semantic pathways lead to slurs”(Bergen 200).

A common path for slurs is a target of physical characteristics believed to identify members of groups. Sometimes these terms identify stereotypes general of appearance and skin color, like yellow or Redskin. These slurs that are associated with stereotypical appearance and seem to take on a dehumanizing agenda which leaves many sports fans in a predicament. If these mascots are portrayed in a disrespectful and degrading way, I agree that there is no room for them on the athletic platform. 

The main motive for the NCAA’s penalization of teams, like the Fighting Sioux, is to eliminate these slurs from the faces of athletic organizations in an attempt to form sports leagues that have a commutable and non-judgmental atmosphere. There are a few slurred names such as the Cleveland Indians and their mascot, Chief Wahoo, who is depicted as having red skin. This visual branding can cause some controversy as it may be considered a racial profile that is disrespectful. 

Another example, in the linguistic realm, is the Washington Redskins. Redskin was historically a neutral term and a descriptor that many Native Americans used to refer to themselves. However, with the influence of pejoration and a changing society, the adjective has taken on a negative reputation as a slur. I feel that is where a line must be drawn. Attacks on characteristics of a people is never justified, even if unintentional, however, the Fighting Sioux name does no such thing. 

When looking at the two words separately Fighting and Sioux have the potential for an offensive nature, but the University of North Dakota has worked to avoid any pejoration. By solidifying positive relations with the local tribes and depicting their mascot in a positive way, they have created an atmosphere and a fan base that respects the culture. Fighting can be thought of as an aggressive connotation, however; when looking back to Bennett Brien logo interpretation, we can see that the term takes on a different approach. Instead, fighting highlights characteristics of determination, strength, drive, and bravery. Sioux has also undergone a process opposite of pejoration, known as amelioration. 

The word has become a unifier for many of the Native American population as it is no longer known by its French interpretation mentioned previously. Instead, Sioux has become a descriptor that many tribes share in the Siouxland region. This confirms Bergen’s statement,“In the long history of these words, they’ve gone through changes, just as our attitudes toward language and toward members in minority groups have evolved”(Bergen 201). As far as the UND community is concerned, attitudes have remained positive. Despite the name change in 2012, Sioux pride remains present, for the time being. 

A current student at UND, Mason Gravett, confirms that the Sioux pride is still strong as during homecoming week, this last year, there were some people that covered the sidewalks and some of the tunnels with the old Sioux logos. Gravett also mentions how “at hockey games all you see is old Sioux Jerseys and merch[andise]. I have seen a good amount of Native Americans wearing Sioux merch[andise].” 

He goes on to mention that,“at hockey games when we win, we chant ‘Sioux forever’ and at the end of the national anthem, we say ‘home of the Sioux’ instead of  ‘home of the brave.’ Also whenever the announcer says ‘Hawks,’ we yell ‘Sioux’ over him” (Gravett). Assimilation of the new name seems to be slow and encountering some resistance from fans as their pride solidifies their opinions. The Fighting Sioux culture has not seemed to have dwindled by this name change and many still identify as being Sioux fans. 

Although controversy has been subdued by the UND’s mascot change, the validity of the NCAA to push this change is deluded from the name's true meaning. There should not have been a change to the Fighting Sioux name because of its upheld respectability,  underlying symbolism, and avoidance of slur pejoration. With the support of the fans and the surrounding community, the Fighting Sioux will always have a place in Grand Forks and remain a source of celebration for the positive qualities of the Sioux people.



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