North Dakota Fighting Sioux Mascot Is Challenged By Sioux Tribe

For 80 years, the Fighting Sioux has been the mascot of the University of North Dakota. It's a logo that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has deemed "hostile and offensive," and they have ordered the university to discontinue it — unless they can secure the approval of North Dakota's two Sioux tribes. One tribe has granted approval, so now the future of the mascot is riding on the other tribe: The Standing Rock Sioux. Jesse Taken Alive and Tom Iron, both leaders from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, speak with host Michel Martin about the debate going on now in their community.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The Fighting Sioux has been a mascot of the University of North Dakota for some 80 years. The Fighting Sioux logo, featuring the profile of a tan, Native American man, his dark hair accented with multi-colored feathers, can be found in literally thousands of places around the university and its sports arena, not to mention on T-shirts, bumper stickers. You get the idea.

But the NCAA has deemed the logo hostile and offensive. And they have ordered the university to stop using it, unless the state's two Sioux communities agree to allow it. The three years the university had to win that support is almost at an end. But while the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe has given its support for the logo, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has not yet held a vote on the matter.

And so it means that the Fighting Sioux's days are likely numbered. It turns out that this has been a very lengthy and emotional debate. And there are differences of opinion within the Standing Rock tribe.

We wanted to know more, so we've called Jesse Taken Alive and Tom Iron. They are both leaders for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota and they're both with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JESSE TAKEN ALIVE (Sioux Tribe): Well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Mr. TOM IRON (Sioux Tribe): You're welcome.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Taken Alive, I'm going to start with you. It's my understanding that you feel that hostile and offensive is just about right.

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: Yeah. It describes some of the activities that are going on over there. Emotional abuse, insensitive acts of racial slur epithets, if not physical violence. I think that describes some of the activities going on.

MARTIN: Just to let people know what you're talking about, you're saying that there's been such a big thing about this logo that you feel that some of the Native American students at the University of North Dakota are literally being harassed because of this. But tell me a little bit more about why you think the logo is so offensive and why you think it needs to go.

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: I just have a problem, I guess, being put side by side, if you will, with other logos such as Bulldogs or Blue Devils, just to cite a few. I just don't see any honor and see the relevance of being put side by side with other school and college nicknames.

MARTIN: And Mr. Iron, apparently you disagree. Is it that you have no problem with the logo or that you actually like it?

Mr. IRON: I'm very proud of the logo and what it means and the purpose for that, for the students and for the benefit of people in the state of North Dakota and all over Indian country.

MARTIN: You feel that kind of represents something positive about a fighting spirit.

Mr. IRON: You bet. That's what it does.

MARTIN: And is it true that the Standing Rock tribe has some of its own local sports teams who are called the Fighting Sioux?

Mr. IRON: Oh yeah, we have the Wakapala Sioux and the Solen Sioux on the Standing Rock Reservation.

MARTIN: And Mr. Taken Alive, do you have a sense of since we have you two who have two different opinions, do you have any sense of how the opinion is divided among the Standing Rock tribe in general? Has there ever been a vote taken, for example? Do you have any sense of it?

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: Well, let me comment a little bit about the fact that we do have high schools with those nicknames and logos. So when the young people take those jerseys off, they're always going to be looked at as Sioux. Second thing is, at the high school game, I don't see any kind of mockery or mimicking or degrading of ourselves. And we look to leadership such as the University of North Dakota to begin to understand those things.

And as far as the election process, we do have a petition submitted. And then the tribal secretary gave us copies of a letter. And in there she says that, I'll just quote the sentence. This is from our tribal secretary Adele White to the chairman Charles Murphy: As you have acknowledged, we have no policies and procedures established to conduct a referendum. I request establishment of these policies and procedures, including criteria.

Essentially what this is, it's an initiative that is being brought forward, of course, obviously dealing with the issue of the University of North Dakota's nickname and logo, which is off the reservation. So that's kind of where we're at right now.

MARTIN: Mr. Iron, let me ask you to respond to Mr. Taken Alive's point. His point is that it's one thing to have teams on the reservation using Fighting Sioux because they know, by definition, that they do other things other than fight, than to have somebody off the reservation, a more sort of general community kind of reducing your identity to Fighting Sioux. What do you make of his argument?

Mr. IRON: Well, I think that our own leaders back in 1968 came to the University of North Dakota and honored the students because our leaders on our reservation were very proud that they were named the Fighting Sioux. They really enjoyed the leadership for what they did to honor University of North Dakota.

MARTIN: And Mr. Taken Alive, what about Notre Dame, for example, the Fighting Irish? Other people who go to Notre Dame besides people who are Irish, but I don't hear anybody complaining about the Fighting Irish. What do you make about that? Do you think it's just different?

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: Yeah. I believe it's different from the perspective of American Indians because of our decolonization process that's ongoing right now, because of the colonization process that our ancestors were subjected to way back in the late 1800s, and all of the atrocities and acts of genocide that were forced upon us that were attempted to literally eradicate us as human beings.

But now as we decolonize ourselves, we're seeing the rebirth, the renaissance if you will, of our ways of life, our ceremonies, our language. All these kinds of things that are very enlightening, if you will, for us as a native people throughout America. Once America or the world is understanding of that history, they certainly will be able to understand why we want to not be made fun of, if you will, or not be stereotyped anymore, however you want to characterize that process that's going on. That's a stark difference. I think when the Irish can speak to their issue, they may say something similarly, but I can't speak for the Irish, I can only speak for the Native American perspective.

MARTIN: And what about that, Mr. Iron, what about Mr. Taken Alive's point that it perpetuates the stereotype of Lakota people, you know, or American Indians in general as being warlike and he feels it just isn't a message that people need right now. What do you say to that?

Mr. IRON: No, historically, ma'am, Michel, we are a warrior society of the Sioux Nation and our great grandparents were victorious in the Battle of Little Big Horn. And we take pride in that. And when the University of North Dakota wanted to be known as the Fighting Sioux, in respect to the great Sioux Nation, the people were very proud to be able to share that pride that we have.

MARTIN: And you heard Mr. Taken Alive say that he doesn't really see - he's a member of the tribal council. He doesn't really see a mechanism for bringing this referendum before the community because it really doesn't pertain to an issue on the reservation. Mr. Iron, if a mechanism were found to assess public opinion on this point, what do you think people would say?

Mr. IRON: The people signed petitions that - let's have it, we're proud of that. And we have signatures, and over a thousand signatures that was presented to Charles Murphy and they say, let's go for it, we want it and we want the University of North Dakota to be known as the Fighting Sioux. And some of these council members have never been at the university activities, whatever.

And the announcement of the Fighting Sioux tradition, it make you feel proud to hear them announce that. And that's the reason why Standing Rock flag is flying in the arena in the University of North Dakota in respect to the great Sioux Nation.

MARTIN: Mr. Taken Alive, what about you? What do you think? If a vote were to be held, how do you think people would come out?

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: I believe if people were educated through some of the stories that our tribal members have, those who live there on campus or in the city of Grand Forks, and were subjected to racial incidents and episodes, I think if they were educated to that, they would really see what this is truly all about. The atmosphere has changed because of the recent position taken by the state board of higher education in North Dakota to begin a process of retiring the name.

But previous to that, there were reports that during the classes that a lot of our native students took, those that may have looked native were posed the questions as to whether or not they were anti or pro logo. And these, of course, were cited by the North Central Accreditation Study that all higher education institutions have to undergo. And the team cited that this nickname is really divisive. It's really abusive and its causing hindrance not only to native students, but to the campus in general.

And of course, the NCAA filed suit and described it as hostile and abusive. So, again, once our people are educated to this and really realize what goes on there, I think they would understand and get a clearer picture of actually what occurs and what a lot of our native students have to endure.

MARTIN: Jesse Taken Alive, I gave you the first word, so Tom Iron, I'm going to give you the last word. What's your final thought? Where do you think this goes from here?

Mr. IRON: Yes, Friday, 500 Native Americans marched on University of North Dakota in Grand Forks with pride of the Sioux Nation. And we support that, because those are young people that take pride in getting their education and whatever. And Standing Rock should be proud that the teacher corps program, Headstart program, and Inmed(ph) program, all these programs were through the University of North Dakota and they're still existing.

And some of these people don't have the higher education like Jesse Taken Alive and they didn't experience college opportunities like everybody else. So it's sad that they have a terrible attitude about it.

MARTIN: Tom Iron and Jesse Taken Alive are both members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota and they have different opinions about the use or the continued use of the Fighting Sioux logo at the University of North Dakota. And they were both kind enough to join us by phone from their homes. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. IRON: Thank you very much.

Mr. TAKEN ALIVE: You're most welcome.

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