A North Dakota State University supporter was spotted at a football game Nov. 5 with an obscene T-shirt, modified with the University of North Dakota’s new Fighting Hawks logo altered with a single-feathered Native figure on its knees before a phallus extending from the Bison logo.
It was meant to represent the “Sioux suck” chant NDSU students developed when arch rival UND’s name was “Fighting Sioux,” a moniker it was forced to abandon by the NCAA. The Fighting Hawk logo debuted this year.
The confounding aspect of the recently spotted T-shirt that caused the minor uproar is that NDSU was not even playing against UND. The opposing team was Ohio’s Youngstown State Penguins.
Neither the shirt nor its sentiment are NDSU-sanctioned according to university spokeswoman Sadie Rudolph who emailed ICTMN. “I can tell you that audience members who are wearing obscene or indecent clothing are supposed to be denied entry or asked to remove or cover such clothing … At this time, we do not know who the individual is or how this occurred.”
The obnoxious shirt, reported on by the Grand Forks Herald, is an unfortunate way to kick of Native American Heritage Month at NDSU, but it did not surprise two of the 188 Native students attending the university, which has a total enrollment of more than 14,400.
James Henry, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and Tyrel Iron Eyes, Standing Rock Lakota Sioux, knew of the overt slurs. Iron Eyes is a member of NDSU’s Native American Student Association, and Henry is its former president.
Henry, a mechanical engineering student, encountered the chant four years ago during his first year at the university when he joined his non-Native roommates at a football game. The people beside him started doing the “Sioux suck” chant.
“They kind of looked at me, and they wondered why I wasn’t chanting with them,” he said. Henry bluntly told them why. They were taken aback that he found it racist; to them, “Sioux” was just another sports team and the chant has a long campus history. After he confronted them he says, “They felt ashamed, in a sense.”
Henry stopped attending NDSU sporting events. Iron Eyes, who plans to study anthropology, also declines to attend.
It was during his freshman year while walking on campus that he first overheard a conversation with one NDSU fan explaining that his favorite part of the games was the “Sioux suck” chant.
“I get that it’s their mascot, but at the same time, it upset me. I used to call people out on it,” Iron Eyes said. Often his fellow non-Native students would stammer through an explanation of why they liked the chant.
“They don’t understand. A lot of people don’t realize that Native Americans still exist today. All they know is the Battle of Little Big Horn. They think we all died on the reservations, or that we never leave the reservations now.”
Both Henry and Iron Eyes agree that leaving their reservations to attend the university in Fargo, a city of about 114,000, has been a stressful transition.
“I am very much in the minority,” Iron Eyes said. “For the first, probably two or three months … I was unaware of other Natives on campus.”
In addition, he says, he went from a high school with a graduating class of 25 and classrooms of 35 students maximum to university classes with 300-plus attending.
“There’s a lot of helpful people on campus, but it’s still very much predominately white. It’s very nerve-wracking,” Henry agreed. “It’s one of the things I struggle with. … I’ve been asked multiple times if I live in a tepee.”
Both point to hopeful signs of change.
A student, Erik Jonasson II, penned an Oct. 6 opinion piece, “The Herd’s Chant: Racism Inside the Dome” for the NDSU Spectrum, the semi-weekly student newspaper, writing “As we sit in the stands cheering on our truly dominant football team, it is hard to not be sickened by this chant.”
A follow-up Oct. 14 letter signed by eight university and student officials, including NDSU President Dean Bresciani and Student Body President Spencer Moir, stated: “We are disappointed to hear that chants are still circulating during NDSU games. Although it appears that these chants are no longer wide spread, any use of them in the context of an NDSU event is inappropriate and needs to be stopped. … We suspect people are continuing this chant out of a misplaced sense of tradition, and we are asking any who do so to re-evaluate their participation.”
“The NDSU staff is very welcoming, you get a sense of change from them,” Henry said. He appreciated when President Bresciani earlier removed from any NDSU publication all but the first stanza of the 1908 school song. The president concluded that the third stanza “contains a variety of cultural and ethnic references (toward both majority and minority populations) which by contemporary standards are troubling.”
The archaic stanza reads:
Hushed upon the boundless prairies
Is the bison’s thund’ring tread,
And the red man passes with him
On his spoilers’ bounty fed.
But the Norse, the Celt and Saxon
With their herd increase, and find
Mid these fields of green and yellow
Plenty e’en for all mankind.
NDSU as an institution may not approve of the chants, shirts and songs, but freedom of speech dictates that officials request these go away and can only ban obscenity..
“When I first came, I kind of wanted to blend in, not to draw attention to myself,” Iron Eyes said. “Now I want to stand out; I don’t want to be ashamed of who I am. … To them it is just a mascot, but to me, it is my people, it’s my heritage.”