You might say the timing was bad, given the University of North Dakota’s ongoing controversy over its use of the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo for its athletic teams. Or maybe, if your inclination is to see the logo go, the timing was just right.
As the UND hockey team competed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament in St. Paul last weekend, Indian students filed a discrimination complaint with the university over a November sorority party.
At that party, some students dressed in frilled Indian dresses, feathers and loincloths. Some wore paint on their bodies and faces, and in a photograph one male student strikes what appears to be a stereotypical pose.
The off-campus party was sponsored by Gamma Phi Beta sorority, whose on-campus house sits next to the UND American Indian Student Services house. The pictures were posted on the Facebook site of a sorority member. They have been removed, but not before they were found by a member of an anti-logo student group, copied and circulated as a slide show with critical commentary.
The sorority has been placed on probation by its national office and by UND’s dean of students office pending an investigation of the discrimination complaint.
Adding to the potential embarrassment: The sorority’s chapter adviser is the wife of the hockey coach and daughter of UND’s alumni director.
Party had a cowboy theme
Jillian Krivarchka, a senior in nursing from Mayville, N.D., was the sorority’s president at the time of the party. She told the Grand Forks Herald it was promoted with a cowboy theme, but some people “chose to dress in a different way.” She said the sorority didn’t intend to offend anyone, but “we understand it was not the best thing.”
When the NCAA adopted its 2005 policy banning the use of most Indian imagery in college sports, it said that Indian logos, nicknames and mascots create a “hostile and abusive” atmosphere for Indian students. UND, citing its large Indian student enrollment and dozens of Indian-oriented educational programs, vigorously objected to the ban and the “hostile and abusive” characterization. In 2006, the university – represented by the state Board of Higher Education and the attorney general – sued the NCAA, covering legal costs with donations from alumni and other logo defenders.
A settlement was signed in November – about the time of the Gamma Phi “cowboy” party – in which the university agreed to retire the nickname within three years if it can’t win authorization to retain it from the state’s two Sioux tribes. Tribal leaders have indicated several times that such an authorization is highly unlikely, but the effort to win hearts and minds on the two reservations continues.
The incident sparked another effusive round in the logo debate on Internet forums, including this post on SiouxSports.com, http://forum.siouxsports.com a fan site not officially connected to UND: “No excuse, except they’re young and stupid, which we all were at one time. Even though [the party] was off-campus, this is probably the final nail in the coffin of the nickname.”
Another poster said the party “reminds me of a shindig at [another university] a few years ago. Some brilliant white boys decided to throw a KKK-themed party.”
He went on: “I’d like to think the majority of us are respectful, realize the history and proudly wear or use the name and logo. Then you have some absolute idiots go and decide to throw a Cowboy/Indian … party on a campus embroiled in a debate over the nickname. How stupid can you possibly be? … If they do retire the nickname in the near future (I hope not), I hope they directly link this event to the ultimate decision.”
‘Give them a break’
Yet another poster wrote that members of Gamma Phi “go to the Indian center next door daily to use the printers and computers for homework and such, [and] I have never heard one negative comment about Native Americans from these girls, so give them a break.”
B.J. Rainbow, president of the Indian student group and a signer of the discrimination complaint, said the incident especially hurt him and others because the Gamma Phi women had been dinner guests at the Indian center. They were invited over “to make friends” and become closer neighbors, he said.
The images from the sorority party “bring the logo issue to the front again as a problem,” he said. “People are saying they were just being young and dumb, but I don’t accept that as an excuse. And the university is getting a bad rap for it. It only hurts their recruiting.”
He said he was shocked when he saw the pictures, especially considering that “it went on in November, when the settlement was brought in. And November was American Indian heritage month.”
Rainbow, 27, a Hunkpapa Sioux from Bismarck with ties also to the Spirit Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, said he has offered to take non-Indian students to campus powwows “and sit with them to explain why the dancers wear certain colors and dance in certain ways. I would tell them the reasons for some dancers wearing face paint – and that it was something they had earned.
“It was wrong, what [the sorority] did,” he said. “I just don’t understand how they can have no regard for who we are.”