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Negative Labels and Oppression

Since at least 1972, First Nations' students at the University of North Dakota (UND) have been advocating for replacement of that school's "Fighting Sioux" nickname.  Found here, along with supporting contextual documents, are Dr. Michael Yellow Bird's annotated comments on negative labels and oppression as they appeared in 1999 corrospondence regarding the UND nickname

Negative Labels and Oppression
Dr. Yellow Bird's letter to Earl Strinden, Executive Vice President UND Alumni Association and Foundation

The response letter and attachment from Mr. Strinden

Dr. Yellow Bird's reply to Mr. Strinden




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(THE LETTER): <To Earl S. Strinden Executive Vice President UND Alumni Association and Foundation.  Editor's note>

I want to thank you in advance for reading my letter and ask that you remain open as you read what I have to say. As a citizen of the Sahnish-Hidatsa First Nations from White Shield, North Dakota, and an Alumnus of the University of North Dakota (1979), I fully support the efforts by First Nations students at UND to eliminate the name "The Fighting Sioux." I use the term First Nations instead of Indian, American Indian, or Native American because I consider the latter to be counterfeit, colonized identities (Yellow Bird, 1999). We are not Indians because we are not from India. Rather we are the decendants of the First Nations of these lands. Referring to us as Native Americans is confusing because anyone who is born in the Americas can be considered a native born American.

Without question, the name "The Fighting Sioux" is a very derogatory and stereotypical label and the product of European American linguistic colonialism and racism. It is a very oppressive and condescending name for Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Peoples because it focuses only on conflict and provides no context for the conflict or fighting. Used alone, and only in reference to UND's school name, this label has absolutely no redeeming social or cultural value that could make it a name to be proud of. Indeed, terms that are synonymous with "fighting" are belligerant, combative, antagonistic, and destructive.

When I was a freshman at UND in 1972, I participated in protests against this name along with numerous other First Nations students. To this day I maintain that the name "The Fighting Sioux" is culturally and politically demeaning and a one-dimensional label promoting "dysconscious racism" among the UND student body and opposing sports teams (for further reading on dysconscious racism see King, 1991; King & Ladson-Billings, 1990). I also think that this name can be a self-fulfilling label for Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota youth and children who are not politically aware of racism or cognitively ready to combat it. Since the label is such a powerful phrase accepted by one of the most powerful institutions in the state, I think it would encourage First Nations children to regard their personal and tribal core identity as continually fighting or in conflict. While I am not not Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota, I do however understand oppression and colonialism.

Various scholars have written about the relationship between negative labels and oppression. Bulhan (1985) asserts that the violation and manipulation of individual or group identity is a clear indicator of oppression. I maintain UND is manipulating the identity of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Peoples and thus violating and oppressing the identity these groups. Shulman (1992) states that "repeated exposures to oppression, subtle or direct, may lead vulnerable members of the oppressed group to internalize negative images projected by the external oppressor" (p. 35). It would be interesting to test Shulman's hypothesis. Perhaps UND could fund a study to find out whether empowering or disempowering images come to mind for citizens in North Dakota when they hear the label "The Fighting Sioux." I would be more  than happy to assist my old alma mater in such an empirical endeavour. Finally, social work scholars Asamoah, Garcia, Ortiz-Hendricks, and Walker (1991) maintain that "racism and prejudice are often  faciliatated by the labels attached to groups identified as different. Once the impression is formed that an individual belongs to a devalued group (and this impression does not take long to form), then every event and every encounter gets processed through this lens" (p. 20). Again, this statement could undergo empirical testing. It would be very interesting to ask Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Peoples how valued or devalued they feel from European American society.

The terms "Redskins," "Squaws," "Indians," "American Indians," and "Native Americans" are all names of colonialism and, like the name  "The Fighting Sioux," they should be rejected because they were socially and politically constructed to control, ridicule, and oppress Indigenous Peoples. Today, I have hope that persons such as you are more politically aware and informed about the effects and dynamics of colonization, racism and oppression in the United States. I have hope that persons like yourself, who are in important leadership positions, will practice "fierce critical interrogation" (Hooks, 1992), of the images and names forced upon First Nations by colonizing institutions and peoples. Hooks (1992) says, and I agree that, "fierce critical interrogation is sometimes the only practice that can pierce the wall of denial consumers of images construct so as not to face that the real world of image-making is political--that politics of domination inform the way the vast majority of images we consume are constructed and marketed" (p. 5). I have hope that you will honestly and fearlessly challenge and dispose of racist and disempowering labels. I believe such honest and courageous actions on your part would be very humanitarian and serve to heal the social and cultural fissures between First Nations and the UND community.

As First Nations, we continue to search for more empowering and accurate labels for ourselves and communities. As we decolonize from the shackles of mainstream American "banking approach" education (Freire, 1973), and understand and practice fierce critical  interrogation of the images and names we were given, I believe you will see our communities continue to reject oppressive and racist colonial labels, histories, and thinking. Such rejection is an important part of our intellectual and cultural liberation and  renaissance (Adams, 1995). The rest of the world has rejected colonialism policies toward First Nations Peoples (Porter, 1998). I think it is time that the University of North Dakota do the same. A good place to start is the elimination of the name "The Fighting  Sioux."

I would like to hear from you on this matter.


Michael James Yellow Bird, Ph.D. (UND, 1979)
Assistant Professor and Director of the Office
for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice
School of Social Welfare
University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66045


Adams, Howard. (1995). A Tortured People: The Politics of
Colonization. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, LTD.

Bulhan, H.A. (1985). Frantz Fannon and the Psychology of Oppression. New York: Plenum Press.

Freire, Paulo. (1973). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Porter, Robert. (1998). A Proposal to the Hanodaganyas to Decolonize Federal Indian Control Law. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 31, 4.

Hooks, Bell. (1991). Black Looks: race and representation. Boston, MA: South End Press.

King, Joyce. (1991). Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and Miseducation of Teachers. Journal of Negro Education, 60 (2), 133-146.

King, Joyce., & Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1990). Dysconscious Racism and Multicultural Illiteracy: The distorting of the American mind. Paper presented at the annual meeting of American Educational Research Association, April 16-20, Boston, MA.

Shulman, Lawrence. (1992). The Skills of Helping: Individuals, Families, and Groups. Third Edition. Itasca, Ill: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Yellow Bird, Michael (1999). Indian, American Indian, and Native Americans: Counterfeit Identities. Winds of Change, 14, 1.



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Date:  Thu, 25 Feb 1999 10:53:08 -0600 (CST)
From:  Earl Strinden <>

Thank you for your recent email message. We thought you should be informed how most of the Native American citizens in North Dakota feel about UND and the Sioux name. The following article was written by F. E. Foughty from Devils Lake, North Dakota, and appeared in the Fargo Forum on February 17, 1999, and in the Grand Forks Herald on February 21, 1999.

"Why do some people of American Indian descent complain about the use of "The Fighting Sioux" name by the University of North Dakota? The Irish are so proud of "The Fighting Irish" name used by Notre Dame. The Scandinavians are so proud and honored that so many athletic teams adopted "The Vikings" name for their team names. The "Vikings" name is almost synonymous with the term Scandinavian.

The Sioux Nation with all its separate tribes once dominated the Northern Plains. Presumably the adoption of "The Fighting Sioux" name by UND was with the hope that UND athletic teams would dominate sports. The adoption of "The Fighting Sioux" name by UND was a sign of respect and an attempt to honor the mighty Sioux of the Northern Plains and was in no way a sign of disrespect for the people of Indian descent.

The contention that there is a difference in the respect shown by the use of the terms "Fighting Irish," "Fighting Sioux" or "Vikings" is a failure to deal with reality.

I am of Indian descent. In the early 1940s I lived in the football stadium at UND and was known as one of "the stadium rats." I came to UND hoping to make the football team after having played six-man football at the Rolette, (N.D.) High School. I didn't tell anyone I had Indian blood in me but it wasn't long before my teammates were calling me "Geronimo." After that I knew I was accepted and respected as a contributing member of the team. I have always been proud that I was a member of "The Fighting Sioux" football team during my college days.

I am sure that those fighting Sioux warriors who fought to defeat George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn and in so many other battles in defense of their homeland, if they were able to do so, would express satisfaction that UND was perpetuating their memory by the adoption of the name "Fighting Sioux" for athletic teams.

What would be accomplished if the few Indians who feel that the use of "The Fighting Sioux" name is demeaning to them should be successful in changing the name of UND's sports teams? It might inflate the ego of those few Indians and non-Indians who presently are complaining about the use of "The Fighting Sioux" name, but it would be at a cost of tremendous damage to Indian and non-Indian relations. Thousands upon thousands of former athletes of UND who gave everything they had to win for UND and their supporting alumni would be stunned with disappointment.

I am very proud of my Indian heritage. It is painful to me to read in the newspapers that some Indian students who have the good fortune of attending UND are directing their energy and drive to change "The Fighting Sioux" name which in no way can benefit American Indians.

I admire the UND Indian students who are advancing the beauties of the Indian culture and the quality of life for all Indians by their actions and example. I cannot approve of those people who are attempting to change "The Fighting Sioux" name. These people are doing a great disservice to American Indians.

The vast majority of Indian people that I have had contact with do not approve of changing "The Fighting Sioux" name. They are proud of their ancestors and appreciate the respect, honor and memory that is being paid to them by UND's use of "The Fighting Sioux" name for sports teams. In fact the highest award given by UND to people who have contributed support to the university is known as the "Sioux Award."

The complaints by a few American Indians about the use of the name tends to isolate the Indian people from the rest of society. This fact is detrimental to Indian society as well as non-Indian society.

Indian culture has many dynamics that have and will enhance society as a whole:

Generosity to your neighbors.
Appreciation of leisure time.
Respect for advice from elders.
Humor in the face of adversity.

Education and jobs for American Indians are what is needed to improve the quality of life. With 42 percent of American Indians dropping out of school in North Dakota before they finish is a serious problem. Training to handle and be promoted in your job is extremely important. These are the things that the Indian leadership should be working to promote, not the changing of "The Fighting Sioux" name.

Changing "The Fighting Sioux" name will not create one job. This change will not give any help to gain a good education nor will the change of name do one thing to promote the beauties and desirable dynamics of the Indian culture which would help our society to be a better society.

I wish that the Indian leaders who are complaining about "The Fighting Sioux" name would discontinue this shooting of all American Indians in the foot. This type of complaint gives the impression that American Indians
are ashamed of their native ancestors; this is not the case. The Indian people are proud of their Indian heritage.

If some people of Indian descent through their sensitivity or lack of self-esteem feel hurt by remarks that are made in connection with "The Fighting Sioux" name, let us work on building up the self-esteem of American Indians so that he can deal with inappropriate behavior by a few unthinking individuals.

All American Indians want to perpetuate the memory of those brave and mighty warriors who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn. One way to do this is to support the continuation of the "Fighting Sioux" name at UND for their sports teams. Please recognize that the "Fighting Sioux" name is an expression of respect for the Sioux warriors that once occupied the Great Plains."


Earl S. Strinden
Executive Vice President
UND Alumni Association and Foundation

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Michael Yellow Bird wrote:

Second letter

Feb 25, 1999

Earl Strinden, Executive Vice President
UND Alumni Association and Foundation
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, ND

Dear Vice President Strinden:

Thanks for sending a copy of the article written by F.E. Foughty. I found his logic about the continued use of the "Fighting Sioux" name  very interesting. However, I am not sure how you could conclude that Mr. Foughty's letter is representative of how most "Native Americans" (your word) in North Dakota feel about this name. Can you explain your reasoning to me?

Even more interesting to me in Mr. Foughty's letter were his statements that he didn't tell anyone else he had First Nations ancestry. Sounds like he wasn't very proud of his heritage or may not have wanted to disclose his identity because of the racism and social ostracism that were, undoubtly, very intense and well institutionalized in the 1940's at UND.

Like Mr. Foughty, I participated in sports at UND: I played  basketball on the Freshman team at UND in 1972. Some of the white  players who tried out for the team also called me Geronimo. However, I didn't feel like they respected me when they called me this name. I  felt that they were using this name as a term of abuse and a stereotype. When they said to me, it was either with an extreme sense of naivete or subtle contempt. And, even if they thought they were using Geronimo's name as an honor to me, I knew they were using only because of his all out resistance to colonialism and not because they disagreed with the theft of Apache lands or illegal imprisonment of  Geronimo by the United States government.

I knew that many of the other athelets did not respect or understand First Nations cultures, but only valued the althletic abilities  we might contribute to good old UND. I was called other names  while I was at UND too. Some students (basketball players and fans) called me called me Chief. Others called me squaw. Still others called me prairie nigger. Sometimes I would be asked to do a rain dance. Fairly racist stuff don't you think?

From his letter, it sounds like Mr. Foughty had a very painful  racial experience at UND. It sounds as though he was only valued  for his football playing abiltities and that any positive  experiences he had or acceptance he felt was linked this   activity. Thus, it is understandable that he be upset with those  who are trying to change a name that had a positive memory for  him.

I am still very interested in your response to the letter I sent you. I am especially interested in your thoughts about my willingness to help generate some empirical evidence for your honorable name hypothesis. That is, the "Fighting Sioux" label is an honorable name and most "Native American" (your term) feel positive about it. To this end, I enclose another copy of my letter and await a direct response from you regarding its contents.

Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, a citizen of the Sahnish (Arikara) and Hidatsa First Nations, is Assistant Professor and Director of the Office for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice in the School of Social Welfare, University of Kansas.

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