Trying to fight Sioux insensitivity: After offensive T-shirt incident, UND administration tries to respond to demand for action
GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota has held plenty of events promoting diversity, but Damien Webster, a senior majoring in Indian studies, said the only time he has seen big crowds is when student attendance was mandatory.
“There needs to be a lot of education across the board,” he said. “We all stick to our own and we need to open up.”
He is among many American Indian students on campus asking the administration to mandate sensitivity training and toughen consequences for racially insensitive acts, such as the “Siouxper drunk” T-shirts worn Saturday at an event popular with students.
It was the latest of several high-profile incidents over the years that have embarrassed the university and upset Indians on campus.
Administration officials said they have long celebrated diversity on campus, including a weeklong celebration of Indian culture and history in April, and are seeking to encourage it even more with the hiring of an associate vice president for diversity and inclusion, who will start in July.
But it seems not to have sunk in for some students.
Weeks before he wore the “Siouxper drunk” T-shirt, which featured an Indian head drinking from a beer bong, a student who identified himself as Sioux_Sam on Twitter had reached out to officials at the American Indian Student Services Center on campus.
People there remember how he asked about their feelings after another racially insensitive incident and were distressed to discover that he wore the T-shirt, according to Jayde Serich, former vice president of the Indian Studies Association.
The incident he inquired about happened at the beginning of Time Out Week. The Gamma Phi Beta sorority, located next door to the Indian student center, hung a banner celebrating the men’s hockey team going to Frozen Four but also bemoaning the retirement of the Fighting Sioux nickname, which many Indians on campus have said is offensive. The banner said: “You can take away our mascot but you can’t take away our pride!”
The same sorority was put on probation in 2008 for holding a “cowboy and Indian” party in which some participants wore headdresses, face paint and other stereotypical Indian garb.
Nickname opponents on campus have pointed to worse behavior in the past that includes T-shirts depicting Indians doing obscene things.
Leigh Jeanotte, director of the Indian student center for about 40 years, said he feels a little defeated after seeing the same behavior continue decade after decade without change.
“I really wish our institution would really put their foot down and come forth and say that there are going to be some consequences,” he said.
UND spokesman Peter Johnson said that the school is investigating the Saturday T-shirt incident, looking to identify students who wore the shirts.
The Grand Forks Herald has identified as students at least three of the 10 or so people seen wearing the T-shirts in photos posted on Twitter. No one involved has been willing to go on the record to say how many students in total wore the custom-made T-shirts.
Several people the Herald contacted did not reply to requests for comment.
The incident happened at Springfest, an annual celebration popular with students but not affiliated with the university and not held on campus, which UND’s administration has stressed.
Johnson did not say what would happen to students who wore the offending T-shirts, but their conduct on and off campus is governed by the code of student life.
The code forbids harassment and discrimination, and defines harassment as acts that “must be sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of the individual or group to participate in, or benefit from, the University of North Dakota’s programs or activities.”
Former Indian Studies Association President Emmy Scott, who is organizing a march today to protest what she feels is a lack of strong action by the administration, said the administration should expel those involved in racist incidents.
Other Indian students have called on UND to adopt a no-tolerance policy when it comes to racism.
“It is not the intent to deny free speech or entitlement to personal opinion; this is an appeal for UND leaders to truly take a stance in support of diversity and acceptance,” the students said in a statement.
Johnson said the administration is looking into that.
The administration also could consider more sensitivity training for all students, another demand from Indian students, he said, but it would take time to figure out how the training would be implemented.
UND isn’t alone when it comes to racially insensitive incidents, and universities involved have dealt with them differently.
A fraternity at Arizona State University was expelled in January for holding a Martin Luther King Day party where participants dressed up as gangsters with baggy pants and jerseys.
But when a fraternity at Duke University threw an “Asia Prime” party last year, in which participants dressed up in stereotypical Asian costumes, the university said it was free speech protected by the First Amendment.
At UND, many Indians have long made the connection between racially insensitive incidents and the university’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, which were retired at the end of 2012 because the NCAA considers them offensive. Indians on campus continue to ask the administration to denounce the nickname and logo.
That argument has echoed far beyond North Dakota. Recently, the popular animated comedy show “Family Guy” had a throw-away gag where “Drunky the Indian,” a fictional mascot from “Dakota University,” appeared at a college fair, yelling out “Look how drunk I am! This is important for sports!”
Johnson said UND has no control over clothing and other merchandise bearing the nickname and logo that were manufactured before the university forbade it. Some of that merchandise continues to be sold. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” he said.
The administration did seem to anticipate some of the recent troubles, though.
It decided to hire the diversity executive last year, months before the latest incident. According to Johnson, Sandra Mitchell’s job when she starts in a few months will be to devise a plan to establish concrete ways to make UND a more inclusive campus.
For Webster, a solution might be more communication among Greek and Indian organizations.
“Then, when other people are sitting there saying, ‘Those dang Indians are drunks, they all go to school for free and they all get casino money,’ there’s somebody in Greek life saying, ‘You know what, they don’t go to school for free. I know Damien, he’s from New York, and he doesn’t get any money from his tribe,’ “ he said.
But Scott said the most recent incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Native students aren’t going to want to come here,” she said.