The University of North Dakota has become a battleground in the fight for respect of Native Americans on college campuses. Now, with a t-shirt that says "Siouxper Drunk" and depicts an Indian chief sucking on a beer bong, some students have taken their insensitivity toward Native culture to a new level. When photos of a group of 10 young people assumed to be UND students began circulating on twitter and facebook, Natives at UND and on social media reacted with disbelief.
Some context: The UND mascot was the "Fighting Sioux" until the state legislature voted to scrap it in 2012, influenced by the NCAA's finding that the mascot was "hostile and abusive" toward the Native community.
To be clear, UND has done the right thing. The school has done away with the Indian mascot it adopted in 1930.
But as recent events show, these things never go away without resistance from nostalgic students and alumni who profess the name and image aren't racist. "It's a tribute to Native Americans," is a typical argument from those who'd keep names and imagery that many Natives find objectionable, whether it's the Fighting Sioux or the Washington Redskins.
But it's hard to claim a bunch of white kids wearing "Siouxper Drunk" t-shirts is a tribute to anything. This illustrates a point sometimes lost in debates over Native mascots: The players, coaches and school administrators (or in the case of the Washington Redskins, team brass and owner Dan Snyder) may sincerely feel they do not bear American Indians any ill will. But they're only part of the story — a team name or mascot doesn't just belong to the team and its authorized representatives. It also belongs to the fans. And by using a mascot that is based on someone's racial identity, the organization is setting the stage for fan behavior that is undoubtedly racist.
"Siouxper Drunk" t-shirts, fans attending games in redface, opposing fans comparing a football game to the Trail of Tears, restaurants touting team pride with talk of "scalping" and "firewater" — these are all things that fans do, unsanctioned by the school or pro team they profess to like. And they're all racist.
And they could all be avoided if the organizations would do the responsible thing and abandon their Native team names and imagery.
Yes, there's a counter-argument here: The fans are adults whose behavior reflects their own views, not the team's. If fans say things or dress in ways that demean a group of people, they're just embarrassing themselves. It's not fair to ask the team to change its name so that fans will behave. They're not children, after all.
Really? We're talking about fans who dress in costume and paint their faces and bodies. Fans who find their own bad puns ("Siouxper"?) hilarious and t-shirt worthy. Fans who will throw a squid onto the ice at a hockey game and get in a fistfight over a foul ball that landed under an empty seat. Fans who will hurl obscenities at referees all game long and try to start a rumble with the opposing team's backers in the parking lot after the game. We count ourselves sports fans, and we will tell you that there are absolutely adult-sized children among us who desperately need supervision. Fans regularly demonstrate that their judgment is less than ideal.
The Sioux Indians whose name was used by the University of North Dakota are more specifically known as the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples. The Oglala Lakota Tribe is based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a place that the media has made (rightly or wrongly) a symbol of the issues Native people face today, particularly the struggles with poverty and alcoholism. The decision to portray a Sioux Chief drinking from a beer bong — and there's evidence that the shirt's creators meant to cause this firestorm — isn't lighthearted mockery. It's rubbing salt into an open wound.
"The tiny town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, located just over the border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, rakes in millions of dollars for beer companies every year by profiting off the misery of Lakota addicted to alcohol," writes Ruth Hopkins at LastRealIndians in a post that essentially broke this story. "These people who are sick live short lives full of pain and suffering. Families are destroyed. Now tell me again, how is 'Siouxper Drunk' funny?"