The Common Good

Native Americans vs. Nazi Sympathizers: The Bizarre Backstory on Changing an Offensive University Mascot

After almost a century of debate and a four-year-long legal battle, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education has decided to retire the University of North Dakota 'Fighting Sioux' nickname and logo.

While the nickname has been controversial since it was first adopted in 1930, it first reached the national spotlight 10 years ago, when 21 Native American-related organizations at UND signed a letter opposing use of the 'Fighting Sioux' nickname and logo. The letter was written, in part, as a response to the sale of a crude and racially offensive t-shirt at a local Grand Forks business.

The students' letter prompted the university's president, Charles Kupchella, to create a formal committee to investigate the possibility of eliminating the nickname and logo. E-mails and findings made by Kupchella during the early part of 2001 indicated that he was strongly considering retiring the logo.

President Kupchella's mind suddenly changed when Ralph Engelstad, who had committed more than $100 million to the construction of a new hockey arena, wrote a letter to President Kupchella threatening to withdraw the funding if the logo was changed.

Ralph Engelstad was a wealthy Nevada businessman and UND alum who owned many Las Vegas properties including the Imperial Palace hotel and casino. In 1988 Engelstad was investigated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board after building a 3,000-square-foot private suite filled with Nazi memorabilia (including a painting of Engelstad in a Nazi uniform) and hosting birthday parties for Hitler inside the Imperial Palace.

In October of 2001, Ralph Engelstad Arena was dedicated with the "The Fighting Sioux" logo and nickname still in place.

In August of 2005, the NCAA banned the use of American Indian nicknames and imagery it deems "hostile or abusive," putting UND and 17 other schools at risk of being excluded from hosting any national championship.

In the following years The University of Minnesota refused to compete against UND in any sport other than men's and women's hockey until the logo was changed. Even NBA coach Phil Jackson encouraged UND (his alma mater) to "do the right thing" and resolve the nickname controversy.

It wasn't until last week (after a decision by the North Dakota State Supreme Court) that the state Board of Higher Education voted to start the transition process to change the name.

The name "Sioux" is a French-Canadian name meaning "snake." The U.S. government uses the term as the official name for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations that inhabit the Dakotas, Minnesota, and parts of Canada.

Matt Hildreth is the interactive media producer for Sojourners.

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