United Tribes News Speech Archives

The following speech was given as a keynote address to the "First North Dakota Human Rights Network Conference, Fostering a Network of Support for Human Rights Advocates in North Dakota," October 25, 2003, held at Fargo, N. D. The presenter has been president of the United Tribes Technical College since May 2, 1977, and is a member (Hunkpapa Lakota) of the Standing Rock Sioux - Lakota & Dakota - Tribe.

October 25, 2003

Racism in North Dakota & What to do about it,
Do Mascots Matter?

David M. Gipp
United Tribes Technical College

      Thank you for inviting me to this first statewide conference in North Dakota on Human Rights; thanks especially to Cheryl Bergian, executive director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition for being a sponsor of this conference and for the invitation.

      Some of you know me. Others do not. I'll provide some background.

      I was born on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, located in North Dakota and South Dakota, at Fort Yates, North Dakota. As well, I grew up around many parts of the United States in my youth, and graduated from a Catholic Indian boarding school in 1965, called Marty Mission or St. Paul's Indian High School. I graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in Political Science and was active in student affairs during my time there. I was among the student founders and the first president of the University of North Dakota Indian Association in 1968. I am also a recipient of the North Dakota State University Doctorate of Laws, Honoris Causa, 1991, for contributions in American Indian Higher Education.

      I also was the youngest and only American Indian delegate to North Dakota's Second Constitutional Convention in 1971, representing Sioux and Grant counties.

      I served as tribal planner with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the late and early 1970's, as well as having been an interim executive director of the United Tribes of North Dakota in 1971.

      From October 1, 1973 to 1977, I was the first, permanent executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which was created by the first six tribally controlled community colleges in the United States, and, of course, has since grown to some 35 members in 2003. I mention this not only because of my work at United Tribes Technical College for over 26 years, but because a principal reason why such postsecondary schools exist is to assure equity and access to educational opportunities to a segment of the population which has historically been denied. This is especially true when we realize that only about four percent of American Indians who matriculate at four year mainstream colleges or universities graduate at the end of their senior year. It is a key reason why the tribal colleges and universities came into being, along with the reasons to provide those necessary skills and tribal specific renewal in language, history, and culture. So, I have spent the larger part of my career trying to develop meaningful postsecondary education to our own Native peoples, along with access. Serving some 1,500 students in 1973, the AIHEC confederation now serves close to 30,000 American Indian students at 35 schools across the nation.

Background of United Tribes

      I returned to what is now called United Tribes Technical College ("Utech" as I will refer to it here) on May 2, 1977, as its executive director and changed to "president" in 1978. United Tribes is unique from many of the other tribal colleges and universities in that it is (1) intertribal - serving anywhere from 22 to 80 different tribes from around the nation, and (2) it places a large emphasis on the Indian family and (3) relies on tribal government leaders who shape the destiny of their peoples in the 21st century.

      In any case, by 1968 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, The Spirit Lake Tribe, The Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, and The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa created the United Tribes of North Dakota Development Corporation, and by 1969 acquired the use of the (second) Fort Abraham Lincoln, located just south of Bismarck, North Dakota. In 1973 the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of The Lake Traverse Reservation became a member tribe of United Tribes.

      This Fort Abraham Lincoln is not to be confused with the original, located across the Missouri River just South of what is now Mandan. This is the place where the reputed George Armstrong Custer left for his final demise, out West. You know the rest of the story.

      On July 1, 1969, the United Tribes Employment Training Center opened its doors to American Indians under an initial subcontract with Bendix carrying out training services until 1971, when the tribes took over all services. (Prior to this time United Tribes handled the campus facility services). At any rate, I always say it is a case of the Indians taking over the fort for peaceful and educational purposes!

      Today, we serve some 550 adults in 14 different vocations and 300 children attend our two Early Childhood Centers and our Theodore Jamerson Elementary School. The children are the dependents of our adult students. We put a focus on family development and strengthening the skills and bonds between adults and children. I had the privilege of working for and with the initial founding elected leadership in 1969 and in the early 1970's. I know they wanted a place for the "Grass Roots People"-the people who were left out of the way of access and opportunity for training and education. Thus, the reason, they jumped at the opportunity for using a place like a defunct military fort, and the reason the Bureau of Indian Affairs was prompted by them to make a commitment to fund such an operation.

      Our curriculum reflects the trends of the nation and of Indian Country. For example, we have two year degrees in Information Technology, Small Business Management, Tribal Management, Tourism, Injury Prevention, Licensed Practical Nursing, Health Information Technology, Criminal Justice, Wellness and Nutrition, the Construction Technologies, Early Childhood, Arts and Arts Entrepreneurship, and five others. We are well equipped with the technology to deliver distance education, and do so with a number of course offerings online. We are also in partnerships for training American Indians to graduate with four year teaching degrees, and advanced degrees at the Masters level.

      The fort we occupy and own was first acquired in 1900 and much of the original construction began from 1903 - 1910. Interestingly, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) used the facility during World War II as an internment camp for German and Japanese Aliens. Most of the Japanese were actually U. S. Citizens. On October 4 & 5, 2003, we opened an exhibit called "Snow Country Prison" which commemorates that era. Six internees of German and Japanese heritage returned - many for the first time in 60 years. These men, in their eighties and nineties, told their stories at United Tribes. Indeed, this event parallels the treatment, taking of rights and territories of American Indians, historically, over the past settlement years of this nation.

Dealing with Racism

      One of the first things I saw in my post at AIHEC is that for higher education to be meaningful to graduating Indian students, they would also have to learn to deal with all the effects and forms of racism - locally and around the nation - if they were to be successful. It was true in the 1970's and it is true in 2003 and soon in 2004.

      Back when United Tribes began, and when I began as president in 1977, we faced many obstacles - not the least of which has been racism in various forms - both locally and state-wide.

      Some examples of what our students and some of our faculty, staff and I have faced include:

      This was the pattern well into the 1980s, and many of these problems persist today, sometimes in other forms. They occur not only in the Bismarck and Mandan areas, but also throughout the state.

What have we tried to do about this?

      Since I came to United Tribes, and certainly before, this issue of racism at the local, state and national level has been one that has occupied my time. One might ask why my activism? Shouldn't students be simply well trained in a vocation to be the best they can be and to compete on their own merits? Won't that take care of problems of discrimination? Unfortunately, it does not, as our experience bears out.

      If it were that easy, it would be grand. Racism is a fact of life for Native Americans and for people of color-particularly in this region. Discrimination impacts all of us - no matter our creed, color, religious beliefs or gender or culture. We must deal with it every day of our lives in various forms. One minute things can be fine and next they can be a shambles.

      Thus, in part, because of my post as an Indian Educator and leader, and, in part, because I am a Lakota or person of color, and, partially, because I refuse to be silent on these issues, I have taken active stands. It is a responsibility to all in the community, based on the moral and ethical issues, as well. At times, I have been unpopular and I have been criticized for being too forward on these issues.

      Here is short overview of the issues we-United Tribes-have been involved with:

      By 1995, I was proud to be among those who were the initial members of the newly formed North Dakota Martin Luther Martin King, Jr., Holiday commission. We worked hard toward establishing a statewide holiday in North Dakota, commemorating that famous Civil Rights leader. We were successful in convincing the legislature to establish the holiday. Unfortunately, following the state recognition of the federal holiday, the governor chose not involve the state with the state holiday commission.

      In all honesty, by the early 1990's many in the state had put the issue of racism and discrimination on the back burner. The North Dakota legislature had refused to put in place a real Human Rights Commission, and still does so today. It seemed there was not a lot to be accomplished.

      Issues, however still abounded. In the early 1990's, a group of concerned Native parents with children who were students in the local Bismarck school system noted that disproportionate number of their children were being placed in Special Education classes. In sum, the school system wanted to treat Indian students in a negative context, segregating them as poor learners and away from the regular classrooms. United Tribes led an effort to expose this problem. This led to another Civil Rights hearing conducted by the North Dakota Advisory Commission on Civil Rights. A report was published in 1993 outlining the shameful activities of our school system with regard to Native children. It further outlined required methods to alleviate this practice, along with federal monitoring of progress and practices.

      Many of you, our tribal leaders, and my office resurrected a major effort to see a human rights commission established in the state by the state legislature.

      In 1997 and 1998 there were additional hearings sponsored by our North Dakota Advisory Committee to the U. S. Civil Rights Commission in Fargo and Bismarck. This led, in part, to the formation of the Human Rights Coalition in Fargo, and a more active role for the City of Fargo in combating racism in this fair city. These hearings resulted in a report which amply documents the need for a North Dakota Human Rights Commission - one that represents the diverse interests and needs in our state, one whose authority and respect is derived from diversity.

Problems, now and what we can do about them

      I believe, in many ways, we have seen some progress in North Dakota in confronting and rooting our racism and various forms of discrimination. Yet, many troubling issues remain. They remind us, daily, of the tremendous work that is unfinished. Indeed, we must remain persistent and unyielding in our efforts and to the nay-sayers. We must impress upon the leadership - civic and religious, elected or appointed - their responsibility to speak up in making the systemic changes for equity and access for all.

The University of North Dakota (UND) logo & Nickname

      This issue will not go away. It has been on the scene at UND since the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's, when students and faculty first brought this specific matter forward. Specifically, it involves the terminology "Fighting Sioux" and the moniker which engenders prejudicial and racist remarks, graffiti, and negative behavior. This is degrading to society and particularly stereotypes American Indians-the tribe being depicted and others, as well.

      I am an alumnus of UND who does not believe that the logo and the terminology honors me or my people, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota. Sioux of course is a modified French word combined with a possible Ojibwa word that ends up meaning "snake or little snake," or "cutthroat." Alone, it is not a word in any language, nor does it exist in the Lakota or other dialects of our language. Unfortunately, the U. S. Government has used it in various official references, documents, treaties and law.

      But it is the combined use of "Fighting Sioux" along with the graphic moniker, which when used together at sporting events has promoted inappropriate, negative, racist behavior and obscene graphics and remarks. In some cases, it has led to threats and harassment of American Indians and others at sporting events and in everyday life at UND.

      I should add that the term Lakota is quite the opposite of Sioux. It means a "friend or ally" and refers to "The People." This is who we are, not a stereotype called the "Fighting Sioux." We are human beings who have had to fight for our rights.

      The continued UND use is derogatory, at minimum. News reports records how offensive this usage is in the not so distant past in games with the NDSU Bison.

      Moreover, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting site evaluation team has announced this past week, October 22, 2003, the recommendation that UND reconsider its use of "Fighting Sioux" nickname and the Indian-head logo. Cited was the fact that "this issue diminishes the good stature" of UND. Even though it is now the North Dakota State Board of Education which decided that UND would continue the use of the name and logo, perhaps this will strike lightning in the right places. It is at least a wake-up call from the real world!

Mascots and the dangers of such usage

      Why be upset about the use of tribal mascots? To me and many other American Indian and Alaska Natives, mascots are a form of cultural violence. The use of tribal mascots is a form of racism that according to Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, Professor of Teaching and Leadership at the University of Kansas, "accepts dominant white norms and privileges."

      The use of mascots does many things, almost all of them harmful to indigenous people. Some feel shame, as I will discuss later, about who they are as a person, and as a cultural being. Nothing in our culture suggests that we somehow should feel honored because we are seemingly displayed as a reference to a sports activity. We did not ask that our image be put on a football helmet or on the structure of a hockey arena. It has been done at the behest - demand - of moneyed interests!

      The use of such images about us depicts us as being a fantasy to many Americans - eighteenth and nineteenth century images, at best. We are real, living human beings. We are not manufactured images, and we are not fantasies. We are not myths as some have portrayed us in history books and novels. We are not Leprechauns as in the case of the mascot for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame or like the Giants of football and baseball. We are not animals, like the Orioles, or Bears, or Cardinals, or Panthers. We are not historically, glorified people like the Vikings or the Trojans or even the more recent historical figures such as the 49ers. No team in the U. S. is called the Cleveland Whiteboys, or the Atlanta Negroes, or the New York Jews. So why is calling a team - from nation's capitol, no less - the Washington Redskins considered acceptable. In many cases, it is about monetary gain.

      Frankly, if the use of mascots engenders negative behavior that is offensive or does harm to even one human being, it is wrong-morally and ethically, at minimum. It is not acceptable, not ever!

      As and educator, I see how these false images demean and hurt the self-image of our Native American Indian students, and the perception they have of themselves. Many Indian people simply tune this argument out in order to avoid any feelings of dismay, thanking that nothing can be done to solve the problem. Too often, we remain products of colonial subjugation and we have not thrown of those chains. Yet, we know we can create and make change. Past mind sets can be challenged and can be changed. Understanding history, and how prejudice, bias and how power works is necessary.

      I will spend some time talking to you about one recent event and how we worked to make some changes within a 48 hour period of time.

The Saint Mary's High School incident

      The mascot issue came to us at United Tribes in a very direct way. This past September 23, 2003, the granddaughter of one of our staff came home (Wednesday) from her school, St. Mary's Central High School, a private Catholic school in Bismarck, upset about a t-shirt that was racially offensive to her.

      St. Mary's competes against local high schools at the Class A level and was scheduled to play a homecoming football game against the Mandan Braves that Friday. Mandan uses a mascot featuring the "Braves" and which is a stereotype, as well, but more on that later.

      The granddaughter came home with a t-shirt for which students had paid $12.00 to be worn at the homecoming game. The St. Mary's sports teams are called the "Saints."

      The cartoon on the back of the t-shirt depicts an angry appearing angel hanging a roped up caricature of an American Indian above a pool of swimming sharks. A caption on the t-shirt reads: "Throw 'em to the sharks".

      The Indian person is not identified as a Mandan Brave. The Indian person is not dressed in a football uniform to indicate the cartoon is referencing a football game. The angel is not identified as a St. Mary's High School football player.

      The granddaughter told her grandmother that she felt quite uncomfortable about the t-shirt and she would not wear it. Grandmother and granddaughter brought the t-shirt to our offices. Despite the fact that I was on travel, I obtained a copy of the image, reviewed it and began the preparation of a letter that was sent by 5:00 p.m. to St. Mary's Superintendent John Jankowski.

      By the Thursday morning, I spoke with the superintendent of St. Mary's Catholic High School. Along with the offensive and damaging nature of the t-shirt, I discussed three things: First that the t-shirts be recalled immediately by the school, second, that an apology be made to the offended student and her family and to the public; and third, that a policy and multicultural training be put in place as to this kind of issue.

      While the superintendent did not recall the t-shirts, he did urge students at a Friday assembly not to wear the t-shirt at the homecoming game. A letter of apology was issued to the family, another to me at United Tribes (September 30th), followed by a letter of apology which appeared in the local newspaper. He has also indicated a new policy is in place and a willingness to do some multicultural training. Likewise, United Tribes has volunteered to assist St. Mary's with developments and reported the incident to the Bismarck Human Relations Committee for their assistance or advice.

      Among the other things we did was issue a press release, send copies of the letter to the Catholic bishop and to the president of the local Catholic university, sent messages and a call for support to the Concerned Citizens for Human Rights and to others, as well. This generated a number of e-mails, calls and letters to the superintendent. Indeed, he was baffled and dismayed about the public reaction.

      The effort generated considerable discussion about the issue on radio talk shows, among parents and students, among local businesses, in the newspapers and television news, and at area schools.

      Area reactions have varied. As one student at the school said to the granddaughter, "Why are you upset, it is only an Indian." Some teachers did not understand the offensive nature of the t-shirts. This indicates the strong need for multicultural education training.

      While one local letter writer said we overreacted, saying this was only about a football game, and that we were being too "politically correct," many others saw the issue and the problem. The issue, according to the writer, was about Mandan High School's use of the Brave. Correctly, I agree with this writer, but it does not excuse the incident at St. Mary's, since this was a t-shirt that was approved and promoted by the administration for student use. Leadership must always be cognizant and find methods to gain knowledge about offensive representations that might raise questions of good ethics, values, and treatment of students from various creeds, races, cultures, and beliefs.

      If leadership does not recognize the issues and the challenges or refuses to directly speak out on such matters, they are being irresponsible in their duties. Those at the pulpit need to be there, speaking out when it counts.

      The use of such offensive mascots with team sports is more than just about game or team or school pride. It is the fact that such mascots show Indian people as less than human. Indians are portrayed as expendable, unimportant, disposable, and are subject to racial caricature. When schools and persons in authority allow tribal mascots they continue to perpetuate mean mythology and discriminatory practices. They overtly and covertly send a message to students and the community that it is okay to practice majority discrimination against a minority. The question becomes who and what is next?

What we have gained from this incident

      Briefly stated, we have begun to see some benefit:

Where do we go from here? Help our economy and community grow with diversity

      We ought not to let this issue or others like it fade away. Some of our staff are working with our local school district to assist Indian students perform better, especially in regard to President Bush's initiative on "No Child Left Behind."

      Our school administrators must be cognizant of the importance of a culturally diverse curriculum - one that does not demean or stereotype any race or ethnic group, or gender, or disabled persons, or persons of a different culture or religious belief. No matter who we are, each can be active in this regard in our respective community.

      What is in it for the dominant white society? For one thing, a more healthy and vibrant North Dakota community and economy. By valuing different cultures, different races, different ethnic groups, people of different abilities, our North Dakota society and economy can benefit and prosper, immensely. Studies show that cultural diversity improves economy. It is no less true in North Dakota than anywhere else.

      From my perspective as an educator and as a citizen, I want success for our American Indian graduates in a North Dakota society and economy. Our tribal populations are growing on and off the reservation areas. Better than 51 percent of our tribal populations are age 24 or less. We have a population who are a part of North Dakota's present and future in the 21st century. It is incumbent on all of us and our fellow North Dakotans to assure the doors are open for access and opportunity for all who choose to be here.

      We have our work cut out for us. Let us join hands and move forward.

      Thank you - Pilamayapelo.

      October 25, 2003