Sunday, November 18, 2007

"The Continuing Indian Wars"

On Oct. 6, 2006, the University of North Dakota sued the NCAA for the to right retain the Fighting Sioux nickname, and logo, even though many other NCAA schools using Native American nicknames and logos have rightly capitulated on this issue (Thanks Todd, for the reference).

At first glance the logo does not look too offensive. Certainly, it is less offensive than Chief Wahoo. One might even argue that the "Fighting Sioux" nickname is honorable. That person might say the Sioux fought honorably, and for something good. Besides, there are many mascots that are based on acts of war (Knights, Raiders, Vikings, etc.), right? But, to get into this argument is to miss the point. Clay Jenkinson, Theodore Roosevelt scholar-in-residence at Dickinson State University states in Nick Coleman's November 18th column that, "North Dakotans are not racist, but they are racially insensitive...They think, 'I am not someone who doesn't like Indians; therefore, there isn't a problem.' What they don't understand is that one culture doesn't have the right to appropriate the iconography of another." I might add that this is especially true when given the history between whites in America and Native Americans.

A settlement in the lawsuit between UND and the NCAA was finally reached on October 26th. It gives UND three years to convince local Native American tribes that the nickname and the logo are not offensive. If the university is not successful in that time, the "Fighting Sioux" logo and nickname must go. The decision was handed down by, "Judge Lawrence Jahnke, who, it turned out, was a youthful member of a UND pep club that promoted the Sioux nickname and a cartoon stereotype named "Sammy Sioux." Thanks for that nugget Nick Coleman.

On the surface, this looks like a victory for Native Americans, but, in reality, it may turn out to be just another defeat in the long line of Native American defeats. Some thoughts from Clay Jenkinson, who wrote a piece for the Bismark Tribune immediately after the settlement was handed down,
The "settlement" not only prolongs a controversy that has already gone on far too long...[but] imposes impossible pressures on North Dakota's Indian communities. The settlement will create new and entirely unnecessary tensions between the white and Indian community. Notice that the tense debate is being moved from its proper sphere (UND) to a completely innocent sphere (the reservation).
The compromise is likely to do damage to North Dakota's Indians, particularly the Dakota and Lakota (Sioux), and it is likely to worsen white-Indian relations in North Dakota. If UND manages to "convince" the Indian leadership that "Fighting Sioux" is inoffensive, many white people will make cynical comments about the "payoff," the annuities wagon of programs, gifts, emoluments, research projects and other benefits that UND will be offering North Dakota's Indians in return for their "understanding.
I can already hear whites whispering about how lucky Native Americans are because they all profit from casinos.

Is history repeating itself?
Extravagant promises already have been made by UND to North Dakota's Indians. More are coming.

But here's the worst of it. If, in the course of three years, North Dakota's Indian community refuses to be convinced of the "harmlessness of Fighting Sioux," all the angst that this silly controversy has generated - anger, sense of betrayal, feeling of persecution by the NCAA and the forces of "political correctness," loss of control, the charge of racism - will be turned on the people who least deserve it.

This is a very old and sad story. Historically, when white people have wanted something from Indians, they have sent emissaries with presents and promises. The presents typically have been patched together to get the job done at the least expense. The promises have been as empty as they sometimes have been offered in good earnest. Historically, when Indians have balked at the white man's blandishments, the pile of presents and promises has grown, and the threat level has been increased from orange to red. As often as not, white emissaries have then sought out more cooperative leaders (divide and conquer is the rule), and employed liquor as a mode of persuasion. On those occasions when Indians have refused to sell at any cost, the whites historically have just taken what they wanted, as de Tocqueville put it, with as much violence as necessary, but under the happy cloak of legality.

This is the procedure by which the Black Hills were stolen from the Sioux (Lakota) and the Cheyenne. This is the method by which the boundaries of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara "reservation" were steadily shrunken from the 1851 Fort Laramie settlement (12 million acres) to the current fragment (1 million acres). This is the procedure by which the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa were "persuaded" to cede their best 152,360 acres to be inundated by Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea.
Hopefully, Jenkinson is wrong and history fails to repeat itself. "Now, the last hope for decency is that the University of North Dakota behaves like an institution of higher learning. There's always a first for everything." Well said Nick Coleman.

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