The University of North Dakota was a featured "cover story" on the front page of the USA Today sports section on Wednesday. This article is a good read if you're at all interested in the realm of NCAA governance.
N. Dakota at center of 'hostile' debate
By Sal Ruibal, USA TODAY
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — "The Ralph" sits in an open field in this prairie city like a combination of the Taj Mahal and the Pentagon, a $104 million, 10-story red-brick arena that was built by a philanthropist to house his beloved North Dakota "Fighting Sioux" hockey team.
But today, almost four years to the day it opened, the Ralph Engelstad Arena also has become ground zero in a cultural war that has divided this city, this campus and this state.
For some, The Ralph is a wonderful gift from a loyal benefactor who believed strongly in the "Fighting Sioux" spirit of teamwork and tradition.
But for those on the other side of the debate about the proper use of American Indian symbols and names, the arena is a citadel of hate and intolerance.
The NCAA is expected to rule this week on the university's appeal of an NCAA ruling that the school's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo is "hostile or abusive." Three of the 18 schools the NCAA cited for being in violation of the rule have won appeals.
What makes this case different is that two Sioux Indian nations that are partially in the state have voiced opposition to the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and the United Tribes of North Dakota has notified the NCAA of its rejection of the logos. The Spirit Lake nation is reviewing its support of the university.
"It's a little more complicated than the others in that, in this particular case, there are three namesake tribes that we have to gather input," NCAA spokesman Bob Williams says.
In the other appeals, the NCAA had to check with only one namesake tribe.
If the ruling is upheld, North Dakota teams, including the powerhouse hockey squad, cannot display the logo or name on uniforms in postseason play.
What's more, The Ralph hosts a 2006 NCAA hockey regional. No logos or nicknames deemed "hostile or abusive" could be displayed in the arena. That might not be much of a problem at most venues, but thanks to the determination — some critics say spite — of the late casino mogul and former UND backup goalie Engelstad, his namesake arena contains more than 2,000 Fighting Sioux logos.
Every exterior surface of the 400,000-square-foot building has "Home of the Fighting Sioux" written large in 3-foot-tall gold letters or a 30-foot-wide full-color depiction of the logo.
The grand entrance hallway features another 30-foot logo imbedded in the granite floor.
Frosted glass double-wide doors have the logo, as do the railings on the balcony and the room-number plaques near every office door, and the treatment tables in the hockey training room, the wood floors in the 20,000-square-foot state-of-the-art weight room and every cubby and bin in the pro-style home team locker room.
"The NCAA says you have to cover logos," says Chris Semrau, director of media relations for the arena. "We're not sure if that means just those logos visible from the TV camera or just in the seating bowl."
Despite Engelstad's Las Vegas history — he built and operated the Imperial Casino until his death in November 2002 — The Ralph is plush without being crass: all of the hockey arena seats — from the student section to the private suites — are leather and have cherry-wood armrests.
The smaller logos are all in gold and blend well with the retro-ballpark look of the brass-topped and green-painted railings. The building has 100,000 square feet of granite and 3.2 miles of brass trim.
But some of his work is stealthy: Shrubbery along the perimeter of the site appears normal from street level, but when viewed from above, the bushes spell out F-I-G-H-T-I-N-G S-I-O-U-X.
Opponents: It's dehumanizing
"The Ralph is a symbol of power," says Donna Brown, assistant director of the school's American Indian Student Services. "It is a symbol of power, Ralph Engelstad's power and the power of the money he had. It sends a clear message to people who oppose the nickname and logo that there's nothing you can do. You're not going to change that name. It was meant to be a constant reminder to us that he won."
Brown and other opponents of the Sioux nickname say its use dehumanizes the members of the so-called Sioux nations. At best, the logo and nickname place American Indians in the past and ignore their presence in today's North Dakota. At its worst, the symbols encourage aggressive racist attitudes and actions that Brown and others find threatening and derogatory.
Lucy Ganje, a member of the art department faculty, displays several T-shirts that were worn on campus by both UND supporters and fans from rival schools. A shirt for supporters shows a crude caricature of a male Indian having sexual relations with a bison, the symbol of archrival North Dakota State University. An NDSU shirt counters with an even more obscene sexual scene involving an Indian cartoon character and a bison.
"Native people won't go to sporting events because their families, their children, are exposed to these things," Ganje says. "The university just tells them to turn the shirts inside-out, but once they get to their seats, they turn them out again."
Student Holly Annis, a member of a South Dakota Sioux nation, says the atmosphere on campus — where only 400 out of the more than 13,000 students are from Sioux nations — is poisonous and exhausting.
"You cry a lot," she says. "It is hard seeing that all day, the shirts, the logos. Here are people presenting themselves as some kind of Sioux when they know nothing of the culture."
The most hurtful comments at American Indian students are the taunts of "Prairie N——-," she says.
"It's difficult to stay here, but there are so many wonderful programs brought here by native people. It is important that we don't run away."
Looking for middle ground
For university President Charles Kupchella, the row over the nickname and logos has become somewhat surreal.
"I feel like I fell down the rabbit hole," he says.
Kupchella says he represents the middle ground between one side's demands that American Indian history be respected and the other side's demands that an 80-year-old school tradition be preserved.
"In some people's view, I'm the guy who couldn't say 'no' to Ralph Engelstad," he says. "That's not true. I told him 'no' when he wanted to use the old logo his team used during the '50s. It was a caricature similar to the one used by the Chicago Blackhawks. He didn't like what I had to say, but he eventually went along."
Kupchella did have a big tiff with Engelstad during construction of the building when he indicated that he might agree to revise the mascot and logo.
Engelstad refused and threatened to stop work on the site if that happened.
Under the school's contacts with Engelstad, however, that couldn't happen. But Engelstad convinced the state Board of Education to agree that the school could never change its mascot.
"My job is to make sure that the mascot and logo are used in a responsible manner," he says.
"That's the middle ground."
He has reduced the presence of logos in the arena's new Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for basketball and volleyball, going so far as to have the Sioux logo grinded off the basketball court.
The arena is owned by an Engelstad trust that is directed by a three-person board. That board includes Betty Engelstad. She has declined interviews and a request for a statement on the issue is being considered.
Even if the NCAA rules against the school and forces a change, The Ralph won't have to remove its logos or Sioux references. Although it is on campus, the trust owns the building.
Kupchella says that UND's contract deal calls for the building to transfer to the university in 26 more years. At that time, the logos could be changed.
"I'll wait," says Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Student Service. "I can wait."
Contributing: Steve Wieberg
© Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA announced on Wednesday that it had chosen not to take UND off of its list of colleges using “hostile and abusive” mascots and/or names, honoring the wishes of the two North Dakota Sioux tribes that spoke out against the school’s mascot and name.
Although both sides make some good points, and I don’t believe UND’s mascot or the name “fighting Sioux” is used in a “hostile or abusive” way by UND students, I do think that the NCAA made the correct decision, considering that there were two actual Sioux tribes that vehemently voiced their disapproval with both UND’s mascot and name. All in all, however, I’m pretty apathetic toward the whole issue. Of course, if all else fails, I suppose UND could always adopt a mascot such as this: