Indian mascots and birthday parties for Hitler

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Feb 22 08:59:16 MST 2001

Chronicles of Higher Education, February 22, 2001

A Battle Over a Name in the Land of the Sioux

A controversy over a mascot at the U. of North Dakota turned surreal when a
benefactor threatened to withdraw $100-million


Grand Forks, N.D.

The message came in March, when winter lingers and the frost still covers
the silent prairie that surrounds the University of North Dakota.

The sender was anonymous. The recipient was Ira Taken Alive, a former
student at the university who is a Lakota Sioux and the son of a tribal
elder at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

"I assume this is the guy who wants to change the Fighting Sioux name," the
e-mail message began. Mr. Taken Alive, a junior in 1999, when he received
the message, had challenged the name of the university's sports teams,
which he felt demeaned his people and stood as a barrier to the progress of
American Indians in general.

As he sat in front of his computer, he read on: "There are many people who
want your head, no joking. I am not one of those people, but I have heard
some nasty talk by people about doing stuff to you. So take this from me, a
concerned human being, watch out for your life."

University officials were never able to trace the source. But Mr. Taken
Alive says he had had enough -- of the endless debates, the taunts, the
vandalism to his car -- that came from fighting the Fighting Sioux. In the
fall, he transferred to another university; he returned quietly last summer
to finish his degree.

Mascot controversies come and go in academe. But words can be costly in the
ancestral home of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, on a campus where American
Indians are the largest minority group.

This past December, it looked like the name debate might exact a very
specific price: $100-million. That was the amount that Ralph Engelstad, a
Las Vegas casino owner, had promised to his alma mater, largely to build a
luxurious new hockey arena that would bear his name. In a sharply worded
letter addressed to the university's president, he threatened to abandon
the half-completed project, which he was personally overseeing, if the
university dropped the Fighting Sioux name.

President Charles E. Kupchella, following protests by students and tribal
leaders, had formed a commission that had been investigating the naming
controversy for five months. He planned to announce his decision after New
Year's. But a day after he and members of the State Board of Higher
Education received the letter, the board launched a pre-emptive strike,
voting 8-0 to keep the name.

It has not helped public relations at the university that its benefactor
has a troubled past in the area of racial sensitivity. In 1988, Nevada
authorities discovered that Mr. Engelstad had held two parties on Hitler's
birthday, and kept a trove of Nazi paraphernalia at his Imperial Palace
hotel and casino. He was fined $1.5-million for damaging the reputation of
the State of Nevada.

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Louis Proyect
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