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Native Sun News: Indian students at UND protest racist t-shirts

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Students hosted a walk for change to express their opposition to discrimination on campus.

Tensions rise at UND
Racist photo sparks controversy
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A photo posted on Twitter has pushed the longstanding frustrations of the Native American student population at the University of North Dakota to a boiling point.

On the night of May 11, Ruth Hopkins, writing for, would post a commentary on, and a photo of a group of what looked like multiple University of North Dakota students wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the caricature of a Native American drinking from a beer bong and the words Siouxper Drunk. The outrage on social media was immediate and harsh as angry Native American students, alumni, and community members from across the country expressed disgust with the photo.

“The ‘drunken Indian’ caricature is one of the worst stereotypes about Native people that there is. Historically, imbibing is not part of Native culture. There are many Native people, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council fires better known as the Lakota Nation) included, who do not abuse alcohol,” said Hopkins in the piece.

Native American students on campus would issue a statement two days after the photo went viral and addressed their concerns to the UND administration who they felt should take immediate action against discrimination on campus.

“The discrimination is apparent both on and off-campus, there is a lack of support from administration in response to the incidents, there is a lack of respect for the American Indian student population and American Indian community at large, and lack of enforcing UND policies on Diversity and Student Code of Conduct,” the statement said. “In response to the series of events, it has been called to our attention that the following incidents reinforce the need for quality school environments for all students. This has been left dormant and UND is failing to meet and act on not only UND policy, but state and federal policies on education.”

Representatives of the University said that the school is investigating the wearing of the T-shirts in an attempt to identify the students who wore them. UND would quickly distance themselves from the incident by repeatedly pointing out the shirts were worn at an event that was not sanctioned by the University nor was it on campus grounds.

Although Springfest is not an official University function there are ties between the student body and the event. Student organizations on campus participate in the promotion of the event and host on campus events that correlate with the timing of Springfest. The Springfest celebration also takes place in a public park surrounded by UND housing.

In the days after the posting of the photo on Twitter two sources within the college told Native Sun News that American Indian Student Services employees were verbally reprimanded for speaking to the media about issues surrounding the Siouxper Drunk t-shirts. The dean of students however denied these reports when confronted by a Native American student on campus later in the week. The staff of AISS did provide comments to the media on Friday.

“I really wish our institution would really put their foot down and come forth and say that there are going to be some consequences,” said Lee Jeanotte, longtime director of the Indian Student Center to the Grand Forks Herald.

UND has had a history of racial tension over the use of the Fighting Sioux mascot that was forced in to retirement by the NCAA in 2012, disputes over the use of the mascot imagery has led to confrontations on campus between Native students and mascot supporters. The Siouxper Drunk t-shirts incident comes on the heels of two other racially charged happenings on campus at the Gamma Phi Betta sorority where invited guests were encouraged to dress up as a Cowboy or Indian for a party, and then another where a banner reading, “You can take our mascot but you can’t take our pride” was prominently displayed outside the sorority’s house.

The protest last Friday was attended by more than 200 people including UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo, Vice President for Student Affairs Lori Reesor and UND alum Chase Iron Eyes, founder of

“This is not about putting blame on people. We can’t do anything about what happened way back then. It is about what we can do it is about making change now and creating relationships so we can create that change now,” said Iron Eyes at the protest. He would denounce the wearing of the t-shirts.

Iron Eyes sentiment would be echoed by city officials who also condemned the wearing of the t-shirts.

"The T-shirts worn recently in our community demonstrates a lack of respect for and understanding of American Indians (and everyone else, for that matter)," said Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown and city council president Hal Girshman. "It is inconsistent with what we stand for and who we are as a community."

The protest followed a release of demands that were made two days prior on May 15. The Native American Student on campus demanded that the university officially denounce the now-retired Fighting Sioux logo, make racial sensitivity training mandatory for incoming students and ban the Fighting Sioux logo from all academic settings. The demand to ban the logo from academic settings results from the continued use of the mascot imagery by UND staff according to students.

They would also ask that these institutional rules be enforced by a Zero Tolerance policy. That draft presented the Native Students reads: “The University of North Dakota practices a policy of Zero Tolerance of the use of and display of the retired “Fighting Sioux” logo. The university enacts a policy of Zero Tolerance for harassment, discrimination, promotion, or racial slurs in association with the retired “Fighting Sioux” logo on campus, off-campus, and in association with UND events both on and off-campus.” The proposed policy would go on to say,” The University of North Dakota practices a policy of Zero Tolerance of the use of the retired logo in the educational environment, campus activities, UND events and activities on campus, within campus premises, and in the community. It is committed to administering appropriate disciplinary action and holding students, staff/faculty, alumni, and affiliates accountable for violating the policy of Zero Tolerance.”

“When we walk in to administrative offices and see some faculty wearing the logo,” said Emmy Scott, one of the students who helped organize last Friday’s protest. Scott would go on to say that she feels that the UND students who were shown wearing the Siouxper Drunk t-shirts should be expelled from campus.

Although the University did condemn the t-shirts through statement released by President Kelley, some in the Native American community on campus were left disappointed.

Scott and other Native students felt that the statements made by UND officials reiterating that the Springfest event was not an official college function and the statements given by President Kelley addressing the Siouxper Drunk incident were largely for public relations purposes that catered to those who support the return of the Fighting Sioux Mascot and failed to address the underlying issues of discrimination.

“We think that it is a clever way of getting out of it and side stepping the issue,” said Scott. Scott would say that her and other Native students felt President Kelley’s statement was not “genuine”.

In 2011 the North Dakota legislature passed a law mandating that the University keep that nickname, however, the NCAA threatened UND athletics with bans from postseason play along with other sanctions forcing law makers in North Dakota to place a 2 year moratorium on the bill that will expire in January.

During this time the mascot has remained a hot topic on campus.

“One of the first things someone asks you when they find out you are Native is your position on the mascot issue,” said Emmy Scott, a student at UND who helped orchestrate last Friday’s protest. Scott says that often inclusion in certain social circles on campus is determined by your stance on the mascot issue.

The current North Dakota Legislature will be weighing a separate bill meant to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname it is expected to be introduced during the 2015 legislative session by Rep. Scott Louser.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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