Racist graffiti including swastikas appeared on the University of North Dakota's campus in Grand Forks, and many thought the school should have acted more swiftly. An MPR report last week includes a quote that is absolutely correct about the issue's trees, but misses the forest.
"But we also have problems on this campus," says [Marcia Mikulak, an anthropology professor], "and those problems need to be addressed when they occur. Whenever something like a swastika or any other symbol of oppression appears on a campus, we need to push back very quickly, very firmly." [Emphasis added]
Believe me, bringing up the mascot issue here isn't an attempt to minimize the swastika graffiti. It's abhorrent, completely unacceptable and a swift, resolute response is essential. But everybody with a functioning brain understands why swastikas are vile. Indian mascots tend to get a free pass.
To be fair, North Dakota's practices in this arena are far from the country's worst. As school president Charles Kupchella pointed out in his response letter to the NCAA, North Dakota students "do not do tomahawk chops," "do not have white guys painted up like Indians," and their "fans do not do Indian chants" (especially disturbing, given that many of these chants parody Indian religious practices).
This is damning with faint praise, however. Exercising restraint over the most jaw-droppingly offensive practices does not excuse making a mascot of another race, culture and religion. Mascots are little identities that we adopt on for a while, like a fierce bear or a wild eagle. This becomes deeply problematic if the identity being tried on is another ethnic group's.
Stereotyping is part of the problem, yes, but it's not the core of why Indian mascots are uniformly inappropriate. It's appropriation, where people largely of one culture take this representation of a minority population and use it for their own purposes. Put most any ethnic group in the place of "Sioux" there, and there would be an outcry, let alone an ethnic group that's faced the type of oppression -- symbolic and otherwise -- that American Indians have. To do so effectively dehumanizes an entire sector of people, reducing them to tools for another peoples' amusement.
That's why the NCAA calls the North Dakota mascot "hostile" to native people, and why the Standing Rock Sioux, Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux, and Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation have all passed resolutions against the use of the mascot. Even if you're not willing to accept the general rule of "don't name your sports teams after a minority ethnic group," don't you have to respect the wishes of the group in question if they tell you to knock it off?
Respect for different cultures tends to spill over. It's telling that the graffiti incident isn't the first problem minority students have had at the school. In fact, some troubles Indian and Jewish students experience stem from a common source.
Kupchella was also the [university] president in 2000, when casino magnate Ralph Engelstad threatened to withdraw a $100 million gift to the university if it acceded to the wishes of Native American tribes and dropped its Fighting Sioux mascot. Engelstad had already brought the university under fire a decade earlier, when media reports appeared saying that had had thrown parties on Hitler’s birthday and that his office featured matching portraits of himself and Hitler in uniform. A university commission that vetted the gift declared that Engelstad was guilty only of “bad taste.” In both instances, UND accepted the gift. [Emphasis added]
Yeah, "bad taste." Like "makes you want to vomit" bad taste. This shines a light on a particular mentality, though.
People get attached to their mascots. History is part of that; people like being a part of a tradition. But people also like keeping things that aren't theirs, even symbols and identities. When people like Ralph Engelstad are willing to blackmail a school for a fortune over an Indian mascot, it shows you there's more at work here than football or hockey.
To paraphrase that anthropology professor, whenever a symbol of oppression appears on campus, there needs to be pushback from the community. The swastika is certainly one. Sadly, not the only one.