What the “Fighting Sioux” Tells Us About White People
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · October, 2003
[A talk at the University of North Dakota on October 10, 2003, sponsored by BRIDGES, a student group that works to remove the university’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo.]
Appeals to the dominant white society to abolish the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo typically are framed in terms of respect for the dignity and humanity of indigenous people. That is the appropriate way to address the question, but it has failed — at least in North Dakota — to persuade most white folks. So, today I want to pursue another argument.
I want to suggest to my fellow non-Indian North Dakotans — those of us whose ancestors came from some other continent, primarily those of us who are white and of European descent — that we should support the campaign to change the University of North Dakota name and logo not just because it is offensive, exploitative, and racist (it is all of those things) but also for our own sake. Let us do it for our own dignity. Let us join this struggle so that we can lay honest claim to our own humanity.
I say this because I believe that we give up our dignity when we evade the truth, and we surrender our humanity when we hold onto illegitimate power over others. And I want to argue that is what the nickname controversy is really about — white America refusing to come to terms with the truth about the invasion and conquest of North America, and refusing to acknowledge the fundamental illegitimacy of its power over indigenous people as a result of that conquest. It is about denial of the realities of the past and the present. It is, to follow the analysis of Ward Churchill, about holocaust denial and the consequences of that denial. [See Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997).]
The past matters
Let’s start with the past, which people often want to avoid. It’s history, they say. Get over it — don’t get stuck in the past. But this advice to forget history is selective; many of the same folks who tell indigenous people not to get stuck in the past are also demanding that schoolchildren get more instruction in the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers. It is commonly asserted, and undoubtedly true, that Americans don’t know enough about their own history (or that of the world). The question isn’t whether we should pay more attention to history. The relevant questions are: Who gets to write history? From whose point of view is history written? Which historical realities are emphasized and which are ignored? So, let us not take the seemingly easy — but intellectually and morally lazy — path of selectively contending that “history doesn’t matter.” Everyone knows it matters.
We can begin this historical journey in 1492, with the beginning on the European conquest of the New World. Estimates of the pre-contact indigenous population vary, but at the time there were approximately 15 million people living north of the Rio Grande, the majority in what is now the United States and perhaps 2 million in Canada. By the 1900 census, there were 237,000 Indians in the United States. That works out to an extermination rate of 97 to 99 percent. That means the Europeans who came to the continent killed almost all the Indians. It is the only recorded genocide in history that was almost successful. The Europeans who invaded North America, followed by their descendants who colonized the entire continent, eliminated almost the entire indigenous population, and in the process claimed almost the entire land base of those peoples.
But were those indigenous peoples really people in the eyes of the invaders? Were they full human beings? Some Europeans were not so sure. In the Declaration of Independence, one of our founding documents of freedom, Indians are referred to as the “merciless Indian Savages.” Theodore Roosevelt, whose name can be found on a national park in this state, defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.” [Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life (New York: Macmillan, 1901).]
Among Jefferson’s “savages” and Roosevelt’s “barbarians” were the fighting Sioux — the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, the people who lived in what we now call North Dakota. They fought the Europeans, and they eventually lost. They lost, for example, in the Wounded Knee massacre at the end of the 19th century, when U.S. soldiers opened fire on several hundred unarmed Lakota, killing most of them, mostly women, children and elderly. That massacre came at the end of what are commonly called the Indian Wars, an ambiguous term for the conflicts between Europeans and indigenous people in North America that helps obfuscate historical reality. Were these wars waged by Indians, or against Indians? Instead of the Indian Wars, we could be more precise and call them the “European/American wars to exterminate Indians.” We could call them part of the holocaust.
But wait, people will say, this ignores the fact that most of the indigenous people died as a result of disease. Today it is no longer considered polite to glorify the murder of Indians and the taking of their land; the preferred route to avoid confronting the holocaust is the disease dodge. But Churchill argues persuasively that the fact that a large number of indigenous people died of disease doesn’t absolve white America. Sometimes those diseases were spread intentionally, and even when that wasn’t the case the white invaders did nothing to curtail contact with Indians to limit the destruction. Some saw the large-scale death of indigenous people as evidence of the righteousness of their mission; God was clearing the land so that civilized whites could take their rightful place upon it. Whether the Indians died in war or from disease, starvation, and exposure, white society remained culpable.
That’s history. It’s not the history I was taught growing up in Fargo, North Dakota. But it is a real part of real history. It is every bit as real as the stories of courageous Norwegian farmers who homesteaded through brutal winters. For too long we have tried to keep those two histories separate. It is time to join them, to see that the homesteads were made possible by the holocaust.
Let me be clear: I am not asking anyone who is white to feel guilty about this. I do not feel guilty about this. I feel incredibly pained and saddened by it, just as I feel pained and saddened by other acts of brutality that litter human history. But I cannot take on guilt for events that happened before I was born. Feeling guilt for things outside my control would be illogical.
However I can — and should — feel guilty about things I have done wrong in my life, over which I do have control. I should feel guilty not simply so that I feel bad, but so that change is possible. Guilt is healthy when it leads to self-critique, to moral reflection, to a commitment to not repeating mistakes. We can feel that guilt both individually and collectively. We can see what we have done wrong or failed to do right, both by ourselves and with others. That brings us to the present.
The American holocaust perpetrated by Europeans and their descendants against indigenous people cannot be undone. But we can in the present work to change the consequences of that holocaust. One easy place to start could be eliminating a nickname and logo to which a significant number of Indians object. All that white people would have to do is accept that simple fact, and change the name and logo. It would cost no one anything, beyond the trivial expense of changing the design on some stationary, uniforms, and university trinkets.
But wait, many white people say, isn’t systemic poverty on reservations more important than a logo? Of course it is. Are there more pressing problems for Indians than the Fighting Sioux design? Sure. But there is nothing to stop anyone from going forward to address other problems and, at the same time, taking the simple step of changing the nickname and logo. It’s not an either/or choice.
So, why do so many people resist that simple change so fiercely? Individuals will have different reasons, of course; I cannot pretend to know what motivates everyone. Many people say it is out of a respect for tradition. But I don’t think that’s really what is going on. I would like to offer an alternative explanation for why white people will not take such a simple and easy step.
Power relations in the present
Let me digress a moment for a story about another question of language that might be helpful. In the 1980s I worked at St. John’s University, just down the highway in Minnesota. St. John’s is a men’s college run by a monastery that had a cooperative relationship with the College of St. Benedict, a nearby women’s college run by a convent. As time went on, the level of cooperation between the schools increased, including more joint publications. At one point in the process, staff members at St. Benedict’s suggested that in those joint publications we use the term “first-year student” instead of “freshman,” for the obvious reason that none of the students at St. Ben’s was a “man,” fresh or otherwise. It struck me as a reasonable request, a simple thing to do. They weren’t asking that we go back and reprint every brochure we had in stock, just that in the future we use the more accurate and less sexist term. I assumed this would not be a problem. But it was a problem for a number of men at St. John’s. What a bizarre suggestion, they said. Everyone knows freshman is an inclusive term that means first-year students, male and female. How could anyone bring up such a silly point? I pointed out that to change the term was cost-free; all we had to do with switch one term for another. No, they said — there’s a tradition at stake, and besides, “first-year student” is clumsy. “But do we really care?” I asked. Yes, many of them did care, quite passionately.
Looking back, I don’t think it was a question of tradition or the aesthetics of the terms. It was about power. In the Catholic Church, girls don’t tell boys what to do. In the long history of those two colleges, the girls didn’t tell the boys what to do. The real issue was simply power. Could the women tell the men what to do? Would the men accept that? Of course one small request about one term in a brochure was hardly a revolutionary change in the gender practices of Catholicism, the religious orders that operated the colleges, or those institutions. But that wasn’t the point. The members of the dominant group were used to being in charge by virtue of who they were, and they were not interested in changing the underlying power dynamics.
Eventually the boys gave up fighting that one, and first-year students at the campuses are referred to today as first-year students. And the women’s college over time has continued to challenge the male-dominance of the partnership. And everyone is better off as a result, including the boys at St. John’s.
Likewise, I think a similar power dynamic is at the core of white resistance to the simple act of dropping nicknames such as Fighting Sioux: Indians don’t get to tell white people what to do. Why not? Polite white people won’t say it in public, but this is what I think many white folks think: “Whites won and Indians lost. It’s our country now. Maybe the way we took it was wrong, but we took it. We are stronger than you. That’s why we won. That’s why you lost. So, get used to it. You don’t get to tell us what to do.” I think for white people to acknowledge that we don’t have the right to use the name and logo would be to open a door that seems dangerous.
Why should Indians have the right to make the decision over how their name and image are used? Because in the absence of a compelling reason to override that right, a person or group of people should have control over their name and image. That’s part of what it means to be a person with full humanity. And in this case, the argument for white people giving Indians that power is intensified by the magnitude of the evil perpetrated by whites on Indians.
To acknowledge all that is to acknowledge that the American nation is based on genocide, on a crime against humanity. The land of the free and the home of the brave, the nation that was born as the vehicle for a new freedom, rests on the denial not only of freedom, but of life itself, to a whole group of people — for the crime of getting in the way of what the European invaders wanted for themselves, the land and its resources.
To acknowledge all that is to acknowledge not only that the Fighting Sioux nickname is an obscenity but an artifact of our own barbarism. If Germany had won World War II, it would be equivalent of contemporary Germans naming a university team the Jews and using a hook-nosed caricature. I do not mean that hyperbolically. In heated debates, people often compare opponents to Nazis as an insult. This isn’t an insult. It’s an accurate comparison. The ideology of racial supremacy underneath the genocide of indigenous people here was not so different from Nazi ideology. Inferior people had to give way so that superior people could make use of land, just as Teddy Roosevelt said. The dominant group wanted something. The subordinated group was in the way. The easiest way to justify that is to define away the humanity of the subordinated group, so a barbaric policy can be seen as natural and inevitable.
To take that simple step — to accord to Indians the basic dignity to control how they are named and represented — is to step onto a road that leads to a confrontation with the mythology of the United States. That can be painful, but not just because of what it forces us to face in the past. The larger problem with stepping onto that path is that it doesn’t stop in the past. It leads to something more difficult — the confrontation with the enduring consequences of the genocide. To go down this path forces us to confront the fact that the poverty rate for American Indians (25.9 percent) is more than double the overall rate (11.3 percent) and nearly four times as high as the rate for white Americans (7.5 percent).
Why is that the case? Why, a century after the official end of the Indian wars, are Indians the poorest racial/ethnic group in the United States? Why is Shannon Country, South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Reservation, consistently among the poorest counties in the United States, with a 52.3 percent poverty rate? What does the massacre at Wounded Knee have to do with the living conditions today of the people on the reservation that includes Wounded Knee?
The past is past, but maybe some of that past also is present. Is white America afraid of looking too much at the past, lest we have to look at the present? Are we afraid of what we might see? What me might learn — about ourselves?
Tradition or justice?
Let me turn to the possible challenges to this position.
Can tradition, the common argument for keeping the Fighting Sioux, trump other considerations? Indeed, tradition makes some people (mostly white) feel good. Does that value to some outweigh the injury to others? Many traditions have fallen by the wayside over time when it became clear that the tradition imposed a cost on some other person or group. It used to be a tradition in some regions for white people to call adult African-American males “boy.” No big deal. Just a name. But a name which carried a message about power and dominance.
Supporters of the Fighting Sioux might offer a counterargument: In that example all (or almost all) adult African-American males objected to the use of the term, because it was so obviously a way to denigrate them. But not all Indians object to Fighting Sioux, and there is an argument that such nicknames are meant to honor Indians. So, it is argued, we shouldn’t get rid of the nickname.
I do not know of reliable polling data that would tell us how the “average” Indian feels about the name. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the vocal opponents of such nicknames and logos are a substantial percentage, but not a majority, of Indians. Let’s also assume that the most Indians do not have strong feelings, and that a minority genuinely support such nicknames. Can white people simply say, “Well, see, Indians can’t decide. So, we’ll leave things as they are.”
I think that is an attempt to avoid a simple choice. Indians are no more monolithic than any other group; there’s no reason to think there would be absolute uniformity of opinion. However, over time many Indians from a number of different backgrounds have developed a clear critique of the use of Indian nicknames and logos, and they have put forward that critique with clarity, honesty, and passion. I find the argument compelling, but even if one doesn’t agree, one has to at least acknowledge it is a rational argument and that it is easy to understand why people hold the position. In the absence of a universal demand from indigenous people, but in the presence of a strong argument that many indigenous people support, white people cannot dismiss the issue. It seems to me there are only two possibilities.
The first would be for the State Board of Higher Education and the university to acknowledge the longstanding opposition to the team name and change it. The second would be to let the people affected by this — the Indian population of the state and/or the university — decide the question. In other words, the only dignified and humane positions for white people are to either accept the judgment already rendered by Indians, or, if one believes that judgment is not clear, allow Indians to go forward and make that judgment (without external pressure, such as threats to withdraw funding for Indian programs or students if the decision is to eliminate the name and logo).
I am calling for white people to acknowledge that we have no right to choose how Indians are named and represented. We have no standing to speak on the question. Our place is to shut up and do what we are told. Let me say that again, for emphasis: We white folks should shut up and do what Indians tell us. Let’s try it, first, on this simple issue. We might find it is something we should do on a number of other issues.
And if we do that, individually and collectively we will take a step toward claiming our own dignity and humanity. The way in which white America refuses to come to terms with its history and the contemporary consequences of that history has material and psychological consequences for Indians (as well as many other groups). But in a very real sense, we cannot steal the dignity and humanity of indigenous people. We can steal their resources, disrespect them, insult them, ignore them, and continue to repress their legitimate aspirations. We can try to distort their own sense of themselves, but in the end we can’t take their humanity from them.
The only dignity and humanity that is truly diminished by the Fighting Sioux is that of white America.