North Dakota’s nickname offends many

The NCAA’s efforts to address the issue are commendable and necessary for change.

I graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2001. My name translates as a “Good Giving Woman” in the Lakota language. I am a citizen of the Standing Rock Dakota/Lakota Sioux Nation. I grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, a rolling prairie that straddles the North and South Dakota border. It is home to the Hunkpapa and Yanktonai descendants of mighty Sioux warriors such as Chief Sitting Bull, Gall and Rain-In-The-Face, who once reigned the northern plains.

I grew up immersed in the Dakota/Lakota culture attending traditional ceremonies such as the Inipi (sweat lodge), Wiwanyag Wacipi (sun dance) and the Hanbleceya (vision quest). My family has a rich, proud history. We are descendants of Gall and Rocky Buttes. These were women and men warriors who fought beside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Today debilitating diseases such as diabetes, alcoholism, heart disease and suicide affect the people at a rate more than three times the national average. Due to these conditions, American Indians have had to acclimate themselves to living day-to-day under extremely extenuating circumstances. These conditions are compounded by a dependence on everything from alcohol to federal welfare and exacerbated by the government’s inability to live up to their treaty responsibilities. Happiness came in the form of a deep respect and love of our culture. We were protected and well guarded from outside influences by a small, tight-knit community.

Despite these obstacles I am extremely blessed and humbled by the beautiful, hard life I have lived. I believe I am a testament to the people’s spirit of survival. To come from a culture that stresses sharing and compassion above all else, it is often hard to find a balance living in a dominant culture that stresses individual success and honors those achievements.

In America the opportunity to embrace, reconcile and learn from other cultures is a reality only just realized in my lifetime, and I am writing to you because I wanted to commend the NCAA for its efforts to address the mascot/nickname issue in college sports. 

I know how hard it is to address this issue – which is really a simple issue made complex because of the money involved on the part of the University of North Dakota and its private sector.

I just wanted you to know my story, just one of the many stories of how this issue affects UND’s American Indian students. I was a young woman when I went to UND in 1997. I really tried my best to fit in to the whole college scene – living in the dorm, going to dances and going to a football game for the first time.

It was this football game at UND that changed my perspective and made me really think about the whole mascot issue. I witnessed several of my white peers painted up exorbitantly with fake feathers adorning their bodies, chanting around and doing the tomahawk chop. I was filled with so much anger and hurt I couldn’t hide it for Nape’ and Cetan – my two nephews. They asked what was wrong. I grabbed their hands, turned around and left. It is inevitable that with a team name like the “Fighting Sioux,” opponents and spectators will “unknowingly” say or do something that may hurt an actual Dakota/Lakota person who is watching. Why should one group of people have to differentiate between the literal term and fun in the name of sports?

I never again attended an athletic event at UND in my five years there. I would have loved to cheer on my school and attend the many celebrations offered by the school. Throughout those five years at UND I was glad I did not attend another game because the vulgar, despicable T-shirts, signs and cheers made by both sides would have undoubtedly infuriated me more. I don’t think another race of human beings has to put up with chants such as “Pillage the village, rape the women!” There would be an uprising! – if we had more of a population.

While I was at UND I participated in demonstrations and educational forums regarding the mascot issue. The community, the politicians and the students say they are willing to listen to the other side, but it is all lip service. UND, its frats and its “ol’ boy” network have never listened to native students. They never listened when my car windows got busted out after a march regarding the mascot issue. They never listened when two white, male peers harassed me walking across campus for wearing a “Change The Name” button on my backpack. They never listened when a car full of white girls chased my sister down the street and told her to go back to the reservation. Honor us? Surely, they jest. They don’t even like Indians. Don’t get me wrong, please. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. I have been here waiting silently for the day to come when an outside agency would step up and step in.

For now we must rely on the NCAA and those who do have a voice to wield the power of change. For us natives we rely on the National Congress of American Indians to represent us – they have steadfastly opposed the “Fighting Sioux” nickname. We rely on our tribal government to represent us, the real “Sioux” – Dakota and Lakota tribal governments who have also steadfastly opposed the “Fighting Sioux” nickname. I imagine if the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition passed resolutions against a team name affiliated with African-Americans or black Americans there would be no hesitation or mulling over a decision. It would be just plain wrong. Perhaps we need these organizations’ support also. For now we will stick with the regulatory organizations that can sanction the UND. Whether that is through the accreditation associations or the NCAA – it has to start somewhere.

Nobody knows what it’s like to be an American Indian from the Indian reservation unless you are one. It’s a tough world. I made it through college at UND despite everything they did to me and said to me. I do not stand before you in feathers, paint or the other regalia usually affixed to my culture. I share a beautiful history with so many people and I am continually humbled by the opportunities I had growing up. I am a 27-year-old college graduate who aspires to be a lawyer, a mother and a teacher. I am also a Lakota before anything else – who participates in traditional ceremonies.

Everyone from the governor of North Dakota to our senators are backing the nickname – which goes to show you UND is a white-male-run fraternity. My tribal government, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has opposed the nickname at UND as well as the other Sioux tribes of North and South Dakota. What does that say about state-tribal relations in our state? Respect? I don’t think so. Honor? Not even close. Despite UND’s intentions of honoring my people, my heritage, my culture I do not feel honored and if I tell you to quit using my name, then stop using it. Thank you for reading this and allowing me to voice my concerns.

Waste’wica Ku Win Young is a University of North Dakota graduate. Please send comments to [email protected].