Every one of us, American or otherwise
, can claim a kinship with the scattered, struggling Native American
s. The sorrowful
condition of the noble tribes is the human condition condensed and accelerated, their fate is ours foretold. We are systematically civilizing everything soulful and laudable from our collective being and the Cherokee
can tell you exactly where we are going. We sent them on ahead as scouts
The prairie University I attended took the name of the Dakota Sioux as its mascot and despite uniform displeasure from the tribe itself, a core group of stubborn white alumni are loathe to give it back. Our sports teams are known as "The Fighting Sioux" to this day and the stylized profile of a Sioux Brave still adorns the uniforms and letterhead.
One wealthy alumnus in particular, Ralph Engelstad, has made it his business to perpetuate the identity theft and the hurtful irony of the moniker, "Fighting Sioux." His threat to rescind a large cash contribution to build a new hockey arena was enough to stall the overdue mascot change and the singing cash registers drowned out the righteous complaint of the original Americans.
Ralph Engelstad was a backup goalie for the University of North Dakota's hockey team in the bad old days, the late 1940s, when Indians knew their place. He made his original fortune in the 1960s selling a parcel of land in Nevada to Howard Hughes, who used it to build the North Las Vegas Airport. He was the primary developer of the NASCAR racetrack near Las Vegas and also owns the Imperial Palace Hotels and Casinos in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi. Suffice it to say that Mr. Engelstad has very deep pockets.
When a commission was formed at the University to address complaints about racism in the use of the Sioux tribe as a school mascot, UND's biggest benefactor made the conditions of his philanthropy clear. He was in the process of gifting the University with an 85 million-dollar hockey arena when the mascot change was being considered. In a letter to the President of the University who was heading up the commission, Mr. Engelstad wrote:
"...If the logo and slogan are not approved by the above-mentioned date, I will then write a letter on December 30, 2000 to all contractors and to everybody associated with the arena canceling their construction contracts for the completion of the arena..."
I've met the University President to whom the unseemly threats were delivered. His name is Charles Kupchella and he seems to be a bright and virtuous man. He presides over a University that can humbly claim preeminence in sensitivity to the plight of Native Americans but would likely be the first to admit that there is plenty of room for improvement. Approximately three percent of the student body is composed of Native Americans, the largest minority on campus, and there are numerous academic avenues for their specific betterment.
The University of North Dakota provides 25 different American Indian programs and even offers a degree with a major in Indian Studies. UND can boast that it has graduated one in five practicing Indian doctors through an innovative project called "Indians Into Medicine."
A natural rule emerged from Internet discussion groups called Godwin's Law
, which states that in any argument it is inevitable that one party will eventually compare the opposing party to the Nazi
s or to Hitler
. This will be the climax of any debate and whoever calls the other one a Nazi first loses. We must add a new exception called "the Engelstad corollary."
Godwin's Law presumes that your opponent might not like being compared to a Nazi.
Any discussion of the biggest benefactor to my old school cannot escape his famous fondness for Hitler memorabilia. His Imperial Palace Casino in Las Vegas once housed a macabre display of his Third Reich collection in what he called the "war room." Ralph ran into a little bit of trouble with the state gaming authorities after the second time he threw a birthday party for Adolph Hitler.
A life-sized portrait of Adolph himself loomed over the proceedings, inscribed, "To Ralphie from Adolph, 1939." A German oompa band played marching tunes for the guests, who noshed on a swastika shaped birthday cake as they perused his multi-million dollar collection of morbid artifacts. According to the investigation by the Nevada Gaming Commission, his shrine had matching paintings of Mr. Engelstad and Hitler in uniform, flanked by authentic Nazi flags. Ralph was the proud owner of a six-wheeled Nazi staff car and a Mercedes-Benz once owned by Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler.
Gaming Control Board agents also found a plate used to print hundreds of bumper stickers with the message "Hitler was right."
Ralph Engelstad has the peculiar distinction of being accused of moral turpitude in Sin City itself and was assessed a fine of 1.5 million dollars for disgracing the state of Nevada.
The current protest over the mascot at the University of North Dakota is not the first. The indignation of the affected group has always rumbled just beneath the surface on that campus. The last big blow up happened in 1972, when some spunky frat boys created an ice sculpture that resembled a naked Indian woman with her legs spread apart. A Native American man wound up in the Grand Forks jail after he discovered the artwork and beat the living crap out of all three of the artists.
Go Fighting Sioux!
The ripples from that incident and the protests that followed had all but calmed by the time I arrived at the school eight years later. I ran into the occasional racist slogan on a tee shirt, or an old drawing of "Kermit," a jolly, pot-bellied Indian caricature similar to the Chief Wahoo mascot of the Cleveland Indians. Kermit looked more like a drunken white guy with feathers stuck in his hair than a fearsome warrior. He always held a beverage and his cheeks appeared red from whiskey not race.
The crusty old grad students and the professors could even recall the bygone chant, "Kermit's luck guides our puck" and the little whooping war dance that was performed every time the home team scored a goal. The racist connotations of the school mascot were gradually downplayed and the image of the proud Sioux Brave in stoic profile was accentuated. Kermit faded into history but for some reason the natives on campus never seemed to buy into the idea that the name "Fighting Sioux" was meant to honor them.
If Kermit was supposed to represent the actual Sioux Indian, the hockey coach had better hope they don't have his luck.
The new hockey arena was nearly halfway complete when Ralph wrote his menacing letter so he had to remind them of the fact that he still had some control over his gift. He sounded less like a major philanthropist than like the petulant child who threatens to end the game by taking his ball and going home.
"If I walk away and abandon the project, please be advised that we will shut off all temporary heat going to this building and I am sure that nature, through its cold weather, will completely destroy any portion of the building through frost that you might be able to salvage."
The North Dakota Board of Education pulled rank on the commission charged with studying the mascot and logo change. The day after they received copies of the threatening letter from Ralph Engelstad they voted unanimously to keep the name that was never theirs to begin with. One line of that notorious letter stands out to me as the distillation of the entire issue. The philanthropist with a fascination for Nazis betrayed his scorn for academia with an ad hominem attack on the President of the University.
"It is a good thing that you are an educator because you are a man of indecision and if you were a businessman, you would not succeed, you would be broke immediately."
The fact that the comings and goings of sports bucks holds so much sway over the direction of a University speaks to our cultural decay. The year I enrolled at UND they were struggling to come up with a million or two for expansion of the library but the alumni immediately coughed up several times that amount for construction of the old hockey arena.
The new Engelstad Arena is by any description one of the finest hockey stadiums in the country, if not the entire world. The facilities can accommodate more than 11,000 hockey fans with an additional 48 luxury "skyboxes" and a second rink for Olympic-style play. The eighty-five million dollar contribution for its construction was at the time, according to Mr. Engelstad's own letter, "one of the 10 largest ever made to a school of higher education." What any of this enormous waste of resources has to do with higher education completely eludes me.
The objectification of a race of human beings would be bad enough if it rang true but I'm afraid that calling a team "The Fighting Sioux" places a warped veneer on American history. The smart money in Las Vegas would have been all over the US Cavalry in that game.
The administration at my alma mater is in the awkward position of rooting for the real Sioux to stop fighting.
Information for this essay was gleaned from personal experience and the following sources:
"A Battle Over a Name in the Land of the Sioux"
The Chronicle of Higher Education - February 23, 2001
"Puck Politics" by King Kaufman