Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Daily Email Edition

Get MN Daily NEWS delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday!


Uncovering the truth behind UMN’s famous ‘Ski-U-Mah’ chant

The University of Minnesota’s famous “Ski-U-Mah” chant, celebrated as a rallying cry of victory for the Gophers Athletic Program, has an untold history.
Image by Shalom Berhane
The Ski-U-Mah sign at the Starbucks on Washington Avenue on Friday. Dakota language students fight to be heard about the impacts of the slogan “Ski-U-Mah.”

When thousands of fans fill Huntington Bank Stadium, Williams Arena or 3M Arena at Mariucci, the chant “Ski-U-Mah” echoes throughout the arena.

The odds of the fans knowing what they are saying are low.

According to the Gopher Athletics History page, two Minnesota rugby players in 1884, John W. Adams and Win Sargent, wanted a fitting chant for their team.

Adams claimed he remembered hearing a young Native American boy yelling “Ski-ooh” after winning a canoe race on Lake Pepin, located in southeastern Minnesota, assuming it was the Dakota word for victory. 

Adams and Sargent added “Mah” to represent the University and because it rhymes with “Rah,” now the University uses it as a cry of victory. 

Deacon DeBoer, a Dakota graduate student at the University, said he is hesitant to accept this origin story.

“That’s really the only story there is, which is kind of telling about the background of the word,” DeBoer said.

In the Dakota language, each word has an oral history and meaning, and – according to DeBoer – there is no oral history of any word associated with “Ski-ooh.”

The Dakota word for victory is “Woohiye,” pronounced “Woo-he-yay.” 

Whether that story is true, the effort to “honor” Indigenous culture inadvertently became a harmful stereotype. The pronunciation and interpretation of “Ski-U-Mah,” predominantly spoken by white students and faculty members, became distorted over time. 

“I think it needs to be stated publicly that this is not a Dakota word, this is not related to any Dakota people, and that it has caused harm,” DeBoer said.

Several Native groups raised the question about the harm of the saying and Indigenous students and faculty in the linguistics department said they voiced the issue.

For instance, the University culture reveres its problematic founders and continues to downplay and gloss over the misappropriation of Dakhóta language for a sports slogan,” according to the CLA Institute of Linguistics.

Ava Hartwell, a first-year University student double majoring in Dakota language and journalism, said the phrase is a mockery toward her people. 

“It’s mocking what white people think Dakota, or any Indigenous groups, celebrations sound like,” Hartwell said.

Although many do not know the history of the slogan “Ski-U-Mah,” the University athletics department said it stems from the Dakota language, which is false.

Continuing to say it is a word from the Dakota language contributes to the cycle of cultural appropriation of Indigenous people.

“It’s kind of like our version of the Tomahawk chop,” Hartwell said, referring to the expression found at stadiums like the Florida State Seminoles, Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Native Americans across the country expressed their frustrations in celebrations like the Tomahawk chop which attribute to harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people. 

“It’s not going to go away at all, because it’s so embedded into our identity at our school, but that says a lot about our school too,” Hartwell said. 

Destiny Big Crow, a first-year Lakota student in the American Indian Studies program, said it was just another way for the University to benefit from Indigenous people. 

“I think it degrades the descriptive language that the Dakota language really is,” Big Crow said.

The TRUTH Report, a research project examining the mistreatment and injustices committed by the University toward Indigenous people, touched on the “Ski-U-Mah” slogan.

“We’ve made great strides in restoring our language, but continue to see mistranslations and misattributed words that supposedly describe who we are. The University has greatly benefited from the sale of merchandise featuring this phrase. Has the University of Minnesota used any of those funds to help Native students?” according to the TRUTH Report.

Indigenous languages all across the country are facing extinction due to colonization, forced assimilation and cultural suppression, Big Crow said. Phrases like “Ski-U-Mah” can overshadow the authenticity of the language and contribute to the loss of Native languages.

“To see ‘Ski-U-Mah’ be used by generations of students unaware of the backstory only continues that idea of representation that dates back to a very colonial time,” Big Crow said.

The funding for this reporting position comes from a grant given to The Minnesota Daily from the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, with money from the Freedom Forum. The Daily retains editorial independence from the University of Minnesota in all forms, including this reporting position.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of a linguistics department. It is called the Institute of Linguistics.

View Comments (12)
More to Discover

Accessibility Toolbar

Comments (12)

All The Minnesota Daily Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • woplia
    Apr 11, 2024 at 1:24 pm

    It is appropriation because just like the land and all the relatives on it, settler – colonizers of this area did whatever they wanted with the Dakota language. The U.S. government prohibited the use of the Dakota language and practice of ceremony because the goal was to erase the Dakota people to make continued landtheft easier. Luisa is correct, current students can’t be expected to know the history of the phrase when the Adams and Sargent had no clue what it meant either. They couldn’t even be bothered to confirm with any Dakota speakers of the time what it meant. As someone further down the comment section points out, that’s really a bad look for an R1 research institution. We all deserve to know the truth and we can all do our own self-education regarding the history of this place. We can all read the TRUTH Project to help us understand how we all are able to be here having this conversation. Nothing about history is ‘severed’ from the current moment and anyone who says that is profoundly and sadly confused about their own identity and history…which is an awful fate. Chi miigwech, wopila to the author of this article. Please keep telling the truth.

  • Luisa
    Apr 11, 2024 at 8:07 am

    If, as acknowledged at the very beginning of the article, “the odds of the fans knowing what they are saying are low,” then how can it be claimed that fans using the chant are mocking what they think Native Americans sound like? That was certainly never something that went through my head when singing the fight song. I’d wager big money that if you interviewed a thousand students in the stands at a football game, less than ten would even know it’s supposedly based on a Native American word. The phrase has been virtually entirely severed from its supposed origins and taken on a life of its own that has nothing to do with indigenous culture.

    Further, if it’s not actually a Dakota word, can it really be called appropriation?

  • looking at you mark
    Apr 10, 2024 at 6:29 pm

    some people like listen to themselves talk

  • A confused Native
    Apr 10, 2024 at 6:24 pm

    Mark, who are you?

  • a real dakota
    Apr 10, 2024 at 3:07 pm

    If this doesn’t apply to you, you should not be speaking on it!! It isn’t necessary to voice an opinion, when you have no right to speak on the matter. Sometimes it’s best to be quiet and move on!!

  • reflection
    Apr 10, 2024 at 8:36 am

    Congrats, Mark, on being a deeply immature, fearlessly obtuse 66 year old gay person. Your willfully hurtful comment shows you are unfit for this conversation.

  • Mark Dougherty
    Apr 9, 2024 at 2:50 pm

    Ok, so someone thought that was a Dakota phrase or word and used it for the U. But now you say it has nothing to do with Dakota. Therefore, it can have no reflection on the Dakotas, because it has nothing to do with them. Problem solved.
    You’re not going to like to hear this, but you children (I’m 66, you’re children) need to quit looking for reasons to be offended. (Also, I’m gay, so I know a thing or two about offense language.)

  • Colleen
    Apr 8, 2024 at 5:08 pm

    Just to note that there is an Institute for Linguistics in the College of Liberal Arts but no CLA Indigenous Linguistics Department. There are faculty and graduate students in the institute who are doing excellent work to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages. The Department of American Indian Studies also has language programs for Dakota and Ojibwe, including the Daḳota Iapi Uƞspewic̣akiyapi Teaching Certificate.

  • L. Renville
    Apr 8, 2024 at 1:32 pm

    It’s still a colonial time and always has been a colonial time. Let’s not forget the founding regents of the university were also the architects of dakhota genocide and literally committed dakhota massacres against fleeing Dakhota who had at nothing to do with the conflict. Thirds are the schools founding regents. And then we get ski-u-mah but the dakhota language programs funding is cut in half of an already barely functioning pittance. The university having the oldest American Indian studies department should be ashamed of themselves. We deserve a building, we deserve realistic funding, we deserve to not have to pay the university EVER as Dakhota people to learn the language. As a Dakhota studdnt my tuition for one year is 35000 dollars. To an institution founded by Sibley and Ramsey. All to the time of Ski U Mah. Super racist at nearly ever turn in this institution

  • Dian Wall-Wagner
    Apr 8, 2024 at 12:02 pm

    Having had the Regents Scholarship privillage of being a student of the humanities, the arts department, sciences… for over 20 years, (though I’m still a poor speller and typist), I have always thought the “Ski-U-Mah” slogan/chant to be a totally ridiculous-sounding adoption of lemming contagion–not unlike how people approach Democracy with trendy tribal ignorance of authoritarianism on both sides of what was conservatism and progressive liberalism. “Ski-U-Mah” is also hurtful to a University that calls itself a “research university”. My folks have always lived near and with Native Americans, in northern Minnesota and in northern Wisconsin, who have shared stories with my elders much to my delight as a young child. Today my soul-mate (“husband”) and I are and have been hired as a tradition to draw caricatures for yearly events/celebrations for a couple of gracious and ever reverent Tribes. As a cartoonist who has drawn political cartoons, and having been with one of the best political cartoonists and caricature artists whose work is great in terms of telling the truth through satire (a nearly lost art of shedding light on what injustices, … our world makes… humor beyond just making light of), it is my hope that we all can participate in opening up the facts and to each other with compassion that constructs change…a little less blame directed out and, ultimately, a smile… that feels like a song and a laugh deep inside.

  • Georgiana May
    Apr 8, 2024 at 9:46 am

    It would not be difficult to remove all references to the Dakota language and culture for Ski-U-Mah. UM – Just Do It.

  • Kate Eifrig
    Apr 8, 2024 at 9:06 am

    I found this article really helpful, enlightening, and I’m left frustrated with the ignorance and discriminatory practices that go uncorrected at the U. I will do what I can when I hear people use the phrase to explain its background in appropriation. How about we work to replace it?