Tribal leaders urge UND to take action on racism: 'Expel the students’ who wore offensive T-shirts
BISMARCK — Tribal college leaders asked for swift disciplinary action against the group of University of North Dakota students behind the “Siouxper Drunk” T-shirts that showed up on social media last week.
Several leaders, many of them former UND students, met with representatives of UND and the North Dakota University System on Monday at the state Capitol for a roundtable discussion about creating an atmosphere of respect on university campuses throughout the state.
The meeting was called in response to the recent controversy surrounding the offensive T-shirts, though many in attendance said the incident was just one in what NDUS interim chancellor Larry Skogen called a “continuing legacy of racism” against Native Americans.
“I’m embarrassed to admit that it took such a terrible occurrence as the T-shirt incident at Grand Forks Springfest to bring us together,” Skogen said.
“I reject the notion that those T-shirts were simply the result of kids being kids,” he said. The message on the T-shirts was “racism — it cannot be categorized as anything else.”
Skogen said that although he doesn’t believe all speech is protected under the First Amendment, the legal recourse for those involved in the incident is “probably limited.”
David Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Tribe, said that even if free speech laws protect the actions of the students, university representatives know the right thing to do.
“You feel it in your heart, not in your head, not in your mind,” he said. “You guys all feel it, that this is wrong.
“Expel them. Expel the students. Zero tolerance. If you do something like that, we won’t be meeting like this every other year.”
The names of the students have not been released, nor have any details regarding disciplinary action, per university privacy laws, said UND President Robert Kelley.
Archambault and others said they worried the lack of immediate action could send a message encouraging similar behavior in the future. He said he doesn’t “want the students to think that they can hide behind the law.”
Native American UND students are considering filing a grievance with the Office of Civil Rights, and possibly informing tribes to not send students to the university, said Leigh Jeanotte of UND’s American Indian Student Services.
“Students are at a point where they don’t have a lot of options,” Jeanotte said.
The panelists, including North Dakota Indian Affairs Committee Executive Director Scott Davis and North Dakota Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, did not agree on any immediate policy, but the meeting was just the first step in a more proactive process, Skogen said.
Skogen introduced plans to revitalize the NDUS Diversity Council, a defunct arm of the State Board of Higher Education, to ensure diversity policies are implemented and followed.
As North Dakota’s population grows more diverse as a whole, the Diversity Council will again be working on university campuses across the state. They plan to start later this month at Minot State University.
Skogen said after the meeting that his only hope going in was to listen and leave resolved for the next steps.
“And that’s what we did,” he said. “I’m looking forward to positive steps coming.”
BJ Rainbow, a recent master’s graduate from UND and a prominent voice for Native American students on the campus, said he was hopeful about the discussions at the meeting, but hesitant after seeing similar discussions fail to produce action in the past.
He urged the roundtable to hold the students who wore the T-shirts accountable.
“When is enough going to be enough?” he asked after the meeting. “Some people just don’t learn until they’re slapped on the wrist.”