November 26, 2005

A Dispute of Great Spirit Rages On


GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Embedded in the granite floor inside the main entrance to Ralph Engelstad Arena, an enormous American Indian-head logo spreads like a welcome mat in front of the larger-than-life statue of Engelstad himself.

Every night that the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux men's hockey team plays in its $104 million arena, thousands of fans walk across the likeness of the handsome Sioux face in profile, with its four eagle feathers attached to the crown of the head.

It is humiliating to many of the school's Indian students and faculty members who consider eagle feathers sacred.

"We see the eagle as a messenger," said Margaret Scott, a sophomore nursing student from the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. "It flies so close to the heavens, he carries the messages and prayers of the people to God. In our culture, eagle feathers can't touch the ground.

"It's like if you put a cross on a shot glass. What they're doing is sacrilegious."

As the N.C.A.A. begins enforcing a ban on Indian imagery that it considers "hostile or abusive," the North Dakota arena and its logo pointedly illustrate the passions surrounding the issue, and the complexities, both political and financial, in resolving it.

The floor, walls and furniture of the hockey arena are plastered with as many as 3,000 of the Sioux Indian logos. It is on each row of seats, on frosted glass doors and pillars, stitched into every two steps of the carpeting that rings the luxury box floor. None of it can be cheaply or easily erased.

And the larger issue of the Fighting Sioux nickname, which has long been controversial here, has again polarized the campus, the town and the state. One online student message board that favored the nickname was titled, "Everyone Who Opposes the Sioux Logo Deserves to Die of AIDS."

About 400 of the university's nearly 13,000 students are Indian, making them the largest minority group on campus. "Unless you're here, you don't know what it's like and how nasty it can get," said a psychology professor, Doug McDonald, who is Sioux. "I've had students in my office in tears because of the harassment we get."

Last August, the National Collegiate Athletic Association included North Dakota among 18 schools whose use of Indian symbolism it considered potentially hostile. The N.C.A.A. said the imagery would be prohibited at championship events starting in February 2006.

Three universities - Florida State, Utah and Central Michigan - were later taken off the N.C.A.A.'s list after local tribes voiced support for the use of their nicknames.

North Dakota appealed the restrictions, and an N.C.A.A. review committee turned down the appeal in late September, though it allowed the university to play host to a scheduled men's hockey regional in March 2006. The university filed a second appeal earlier this month with the Division II Council of Presidents. According to Bob Williams, an N.C.A.A. spokesman, the council will discuss the issue and forward a recommendation to the N.C.A.A. Executive Committee to consider at its January meeting in Indianapolis.

North Dakota originally adopted the nickname in the 1930's. In 1969, a delegation from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe - including a grandson of Sitting Bull - gave the university permission to formally call its teams the Fighting Sioux.

But anti-Indian sentiments simmered. Three years later, the fallout from a fraternity's obscene snow sculpture of a female Indian led Thomas Clifford, the university president, to ban offensive Indian symbols, although the hockey team was allowed to keep its cartoonish Chicago Blackhawks-like logo until 1993.

Engelstad, a North Dakota goaltender from 1948 to 1950 who later became a Las Vegas casino owner, threw himself into the debate after donating $5 million to the university in 1987. The university inducted him into its Hall of Fame, though he had logged a mediocre 4.14 goals against average in 14 games. Later he donated $100 million for the new arena, which includes marble floors and more than 11,000 leather chairs. It opened in 2001, 13 months before Engelstad died of cancer.

Engelstad was a controversial figure who collected Nazi memorabilia, gave two lavish birthday parties for Adolf Hitler in his casino in the late 1980's, and was photographed in a Nazi uniform. Engelstad later apologized for the parties and paid a $1.5 million fine to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which had threatened to pull his casino license.

When it came to his beloved Fighting Sioux, however, Engelstad refused to back down. In 2000, after the university's president, Charles Kupchella, formed a commission to study a name change and appeared to favor a switch, Engelstad sent Kupchella a letter threatening to halt arena construction, though terms of the lease bound Engelstad to finish it.

But according to Beverly Clayburgh, a member of the state's Board of Higher Education, another threat emerged about the same time. Men's hockey Coach Dean Blais, an Engelstad supporter who led the team to two N.C.A.A. titles, told her he would resign unless the issue was resolved to Engelstad's satisfaction. (Blais, now an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, said on Friday through a team spokesman, "I might have said that to somebody.")

In response, the board hastily, and unanimously, voted to keep the nickname, taking the decision from the university and, ultimately, the state legislature. The vote ignored both a statement from 21 Indian-related programs on campus and a 1999 student senate resolution favoring a nickname change.

The university is basing its appeal to the N.C.A.A. on a 2000 resolution by the Spirit Lake Nation, which said it would not oppose the nickname and logo if the university established a zero-tolerance policy toward racism and if it created a cultural awareness course. But Myra Pearson, a tribal chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Nation, said in a recent interview that the university had not kept those promises.

Members of the Spirit Lake Nation overwhelmingly opposed the nickname at a general assembly meeting in late September. The tribal council has yet to consider a resolution.

North Dakota's two other Sioux tribes have passed resolutions demanding the school drop the nickname. And the United Tribes of North Dakota, which includes all five Indian tribes in the state, backed the N.C.A.A.'s position in September.

Kupchella said the university uses the logo and nickname with respect.

"I don't have a clue why anyone would take offense to something done respectfully and clearly meant as a honor," Kupchella said in an interview in his office, where he displays a small framed Sioux logo on a wall near his desk.

"O.K., you say you don't like it. But why? There's never been an explanation that satisfied, I don't think, any of the real proponents of keeping it."

Even if the university changed the nickname in a decision that would rest with the Board of Higher Education, the arena would not be obligated to remove the logos because the university does not manage it, an Engelstad Arena spokesman, Chris Semrau, said. The university leased the building to an Engelstad holding company until Sept. 30, 2030.

It would be "cost prohibitive" to remove or cover all the logos, Semrau said. The university would not be allowed to play host to any N.C.A.A. event, though, if it loses its appeal.

Opponents of the nickname say that Engelstad purposely filled the arena with logos in a show of defiance. There are few such logos in the new Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for basketball and volleyball, which is named for Engelstad's wife, or in the Alerus Center, the football stadium. On the day the hockey arena opened, Engelstad stood on the ice and declared that he hoped the logo would "stand forever."

A statue of Sitting Bull on horseback guards the main entrance, and the words "Home of the Fighting Sioux" in huge letters adorn the sides of the building. In the concourses, spectators can buy Sioux-per Dogs and various Sioux logo souvenirs. The university has cracked down on Indian-derived chants and inappropriate clothing in the arena, and McDonald, the professor, said he appreciated the changes.

"But that's not the point," he said. "As long as the name exists, it provides a breeding ground for this kind of problem. If it's gone, we can move forward on other issues."