This Podcast was recorded on 9/17/2015
The Real Story Behind the UND Sorority Scandal April 2014
The UND Logo issue continues to surface in North Dakota. Even though the NCAA has successfully convinced UND to banish their racist Native mascot, politicians, alums, and Logo fans have continued to try to resurface the racist Native Mascot for UND and they believe that they can make the University revive the derogatory mascot. The Logo Committee at UND has spent time and resources to develop 5 mascot options and will make a new selection for a UND mascot. Recently, a past Mayor of Bismarck ND took three of those names and trademarked them in an effort to prevent UND from naming a new mascot. His intention is to keep the old racist mascot of the past.
Native voices have been loud and on point on this issue. In an effort to make Native people’s voiced heard, we are playing some interviews that KPPP-LP FM radio recorded in April pf 2014. In April of last year, a pink banner was placed by the Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters outside their door, which read “You can take away our mascot but you can’t take away our pride!”
What wasn’t being heard in the media, however, were the voices of Native Americans affected directly by this issue. That’s why in April of 2014, KPPP-LP Radio interviewed Chase Iron Eyes, Amber Finley, Dani Miller, and Jordan Brien.
Sources related to story:
The Real Story Behind the UND Sorority Scandal
By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
The TV, print news, radio and social media have blown up over the last week about the pink banner placed by the Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters outside their door, which read “You can take away our mascot but you can’t take away our pride!”
Gamma Phi Beta’s sorority building neighbors the American Indian Center on UND’s campus and the banner’s placement took place during Time Out Week, a 44 year tradition (it would be 45, except it had to be canceled one year) that started in an effort to educate non-native students about Native American lives, issues, and struggles. The point of Time Out Week, in many senses, is to bring non-native and Native American students closer together and heal some of the tensions that have existed for decades on UND’s campus, particularly those related to the now banned mascot/logo.
Public outrage to the banner was swift and both the national chapter of Gamma Phi Beta, and the university President, Robert Kelley, issued statements of apology and regret on behalf of the sorority and UND. The banner was removed the same day and the sorority, who had previously been placed on probation in 2008 for a separate incident of racial insensitivity, also agreed they would attend cultural sensitivity training.
In addition, another controversy spiked when UND’s Student Body President, Nick Creamer, vetoed a vote by the student senate to fund an additional $2,000 dollars (out of $4,000 requested) that were still needed to fund the annual UNDIA Wacipi powwow and Community Buffalo Feed. Creamer’s veto wasn’t the only thing that caused controversy. His defiant use of the hashtag #FightingSiouxForever, in tweeting his support of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters, give the impression that he supports the sorority sisters’ right to hang on to the banned mascot; an image which had been removed because it was deemed a racist symbol that had no place in an institution of higher learning.
What wasn’t being heard in the media, however, were the voices of Native Americans affected directly by this issue. That’s why the People’s Press Project undertook this podcast interview with Chase Iron Eyes, Amber Finley, Dani Miller, and Jordan Brien.
Chase Iron Eyes is a Lakota Sioux from Standing Rock. He’s a UND alum, attorney, founder of Last Real Indians (Full disclosure: lastrealindians.com is an online Native American publication. The PPP is the fiscal agent for this media group). Chase is additionally an activist, speaker, and Spiritual Economy Revitalizer.
Dani Miller is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota. She’s a senior at UND, and is part of the McNair Program which is conducting research on retention of Native American college students. She has been a participant and presenter at Time Out Week on campus.
Jordan Brien, AKA Mic Jordan, is a Native American hip-hop artist and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Mic Jordan uses his voice to tackle issues such as gun violence, suicide and alcoholism. Jordan’s cousin, Ben Brien is the artist that created the most recent logo/mascot.
Amber Finley, who is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa, Arikara Nation. She is a UND alum from 2006, and Executive Director for the non-profit Northstar Council whose mission it is to create a Native American Center in the greater Grand Forks community. Amber has met with a representative of Gamma Phi Beta about sensitivity training and she has recently made public her letter showing deep disappointment for the veto by student body president Nick Creamer.
These interviews cleared up a lot of questions I had about the history of this issue, the history of the sorority, Time Out Week, and the UNDIA Wacipi Powwow and Community Buffalo Feed.
Amber Finley explained why everyone was so shocked at the banner coming from this particular sorority. She pointed out that there had already been some ‘bad blood’ between Gamma Phi Beta and the American Indian Center because of rude or disrespectful ways in which some sorority sisters behaved toward Native American students in their daily interactions and being next door neighbors. But, tensions escalated in 2008 when the sorority hosted a racist “Cowboys and Indians” themed costume party where sorority sisters were dressed as ‘Pocahotties’ (which degrades and sexualizes the bodies of indigenous women) and where students in red face mocked and degraded the image of Native Americans, took pictures and posted them on facebook. The consequences of this party were that the sorority gained a bad reputation and got themselves into very hot water.
A resolution was reached which required the sorority to work with the American Indian Student Services and other American Indian organizations and to make plans to be better neighbors to the Native American Center. After a resolution was reached, a compromise was made to improve dialogue with their neighbors and Gamma Phi Beta’s sisters began to regularly go next door, but not to socialize and build relationships.
Instead, Amber recalls that at the time they were frequenting the American Indian Center, “because at that time American Indian Student Services used to offer free printing to all the students who came to use the facility. Prior to the sorority incident the majority of the students who came to use the facility were Native American. And then all of a sudden there was this influx of sorority girls coming over to print out all their papers. They would not interact with any of the Native American students. They didn’t stay long enough to hang out in the lounge and meet anybody or say ‘Hi!’ to anybody. They would just come in, do their business, and leave.”
Amber also recalls that Gamma Phi Beta sisters would get upset whenever the Natives held events because they had less parking available to them. The added tension for Native American students coming from the sorority sisters didn’t feel right to students.
“It ended up feeling more like it was a punishment to the Native American students because here is this group of people who were insensitive to them in the first place and now they have to see them everyday. And they know that they are not genuine. They don’t want to come over and interact on a personal level. They don’t want to have a better understanding of our culture. That they don’t want to participate with us at any level beyond coming to use our facilities to get free printing or to use the internet because maybe their laptop doesn’t work or their printer doesn’t work.”, she remembered.
After one session of cultural sensitivity training, there was no follow up by Gamma Phi Beta.
Jordan Brien, whose cousin is the artist that designed and drew the mascot and logo explained that feelings are mixed about the logo, even among Native Americans. Jordan thoughtfully explained his own journey. At first he was a great fan of the Fighting Sioux. The word ‘Sioux’, he pointed out, is the derogatory name given by the Chippewa (whose real names are not Chippewa, but Anishinabeg), which means snake in the grass. Dakota/Lakota is the name that an Indian of that tribe would prefer to be called. But, of course, most people don’t know that.
Jordan grew up feeling great pride in the mascot and logo because everyone in his family was and is still very proud of their cousin’s artistic ability. But, then as he grew he began to see the impact that it was having in the lives of Native students like himself. Since Jordan devotes his life to hip-hop and mentoring that teaches Native youth not to succumb to alcohol, drugs, or the despair of suicide, he decided to speak out about this issue which he says is deeply hurting Native youth. But Jordan takes a different approach to confronting this issue.
He explained, “It’s about right and wrong and saying hurtful things to people and having hurtful things done to people within itself. That’s the real issue. What Gamma Phi Beta did. That’s hurtful. That hurts whether they know it or not. Because they are smart college girls and that hurts.” Jordan takes issue with the idea that the use of the logo (or in this case, clinging to its memory) is meant to “honor” or “respect” Native people. But, his analysis is that what people are honoring is Fighting Sioux hockey, but not the Sioux people.
“They don’t. Not at all,” he said, “because I called out some friends of mine who live in Grand Forks all their life and are big fans and when I started talking about Wacipi (powwow) and Time Out Week they had no clue that that was there!”
Dani, a senior at UND, also talked about the low attendance of white students at Time Out Week events and the Wacipi powwow and buffalo feed, which Dani says as a Native American student has, “always been the highlight of my experience in college. Even before I was taking Indian Studies classes I started going to Time Out Week because I was offered extra credit and once I got there I started realizing how much these events and lectures related to me and the issues that I face and that Indian Country faces. It was then that I realized how valuable it was to me and how I wanted to be more involved with it. But I’d also like to point out that Time Out Week isn’t just valuable to Native students. I think it’s valuable to non-native students as well because they can learn about these issues and things and just provide the space where everyone can be connected and have these discussions and feel open to talk about these things.”
Dani lamented the lack of support from other non-native organizations on campus and said that unfortunately most of those non-native students who do attend only do so for extra credit. “We’ve spoken to student senate and other people who give us our funds and we’ve asked them before, ‘How many of you have actually attended our powwow or Time Out week events?’, and one person raised their hand when asked that question,” she added. “Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of non-native students treat Time Out week as if its a nuisance for them.”
Dani explained that tensions around the retirement of the logo and mascot have persisted at UND and that all Native students are put into the spotlight when non-native students realize that they are Native and want to know their position on the Fighting Sioux logo and mascot. For them, she explained, there is no hiding from the issue on campus. This places students in an unsafe environment where they have to fear repercussions if they do not support the logo and mascot use. Jordan added that many people prefer not to have any opinion at all or to never speak out about their feelings on the logo to avoid being harassed. And this happens to Natives on and off UND’s campus.
Their fears are not baseless. Amber Finley said the BRIDGES organization at UND has catalogued hundreds of incidents of aggressions, incidents and racist images used at UND attacking or defacing the image of Native Americans. There are numerous incidents in the past where student arguments have become violent and where Native students have received threats. Chase Iron Eyes, a UND alum and attorney, discussed some of the unsavory history of violence behind the mascot and logo, “There’s a 40 year history at UND of Indian students organizing every time they go there. They organize and they realize what’s going on; that the use of Native American people in this arena, as mascots or nicknames, sports nicknames, is nothing but problems, nothing but trouble. I mean, it’s an objectification and on a real intellectual level there is something completely and inherently wrong going on. There’s an attempted usurpation of our identity of really, our spirit.” He recalls that students were subjected to broken car windows, death threats, and physical attacks.
Chase Iron Eyes doesn’t subscribe to the idea that the sorority can claim ignorance of the impact of the banner on Native Americans saying, “What Gamma Phi Beta can’t do is put a banner like this out during Time Out Week across from the Indian Center and not expect Natives to take it that it’s directed at us.” Even if the sorority sisters were, as some (like Student Body President, Nick Creamer) have claimed, aiming their banner at the NCAA and not Native students, they should also have the objectivity – – like anyone else — to understand how it could also be taken as an attack on Native students as well.
Timing, of course, is everything. And the timing of the banner couldn’t have been worse. But the significance of Time Out Week was also fleshed out with more precision by this panel of interviewees. Chase stated, “I don’t know of another non-Indian cultural event that brings in as many visitors and has as much economic impact as the powwow does. There are thousands of people that come into Grand Forks and millions of dollars. That’s not counting the amount of money that Indian students bring into the university. That is definitely in the multi-million dollars because of the grant money that comes because of the Indian medical program. “
The timing of Student Body President, Nick Creamer’s #FightingSiouxForever tweet in support of the sorority and his veto of the additional funding that had already been approved by the student senate to #FundTheFeed were seen by Native students as retaliation and very petty retaliation at that. After all, the Native students who were offended by the banner should not be punished for exhibiting or speaking their hurt or dismay at what continues to be an oppressive and hostile atmosphere for Native students at UND.
That’s why the importance of Time Out Week can’t be stressed enough. With all the negative history of violence and racist acts committed on campus, Time Out Week and Waicipi were intended as a way for students to take time to understand each other better. But the support for Native American students at UND has been lacking. Finley feels that UND could promote the event better. She also stated that non-native student organizations, student senate and the administration at UND should set the example for other non-native students to attend by showing their support of the event with their own attendance. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. Amber said that the event and powwow are not backed by support in the form of attendance from either student government, student leadership, or most of the administration. She expressed what she feels many Native students have experienced saying, “If we’re (Native American students) so important and this University is supposed to be our premier institution in the entire state, why are we treated like we don’t matter when students are spending a whole year planning an event to try to educate the campus about who they are and what the issues are and how to create some dialogue?”
I asked Amber to give me some background on the economic impact of the Wacipi powwow for UND, and for the city of Grand Forks; what type of support the university and the city show for this massively successful weekend-long powwow and long celebrated Time Out week event and to discuss her reaction to Nick Creamer’s tweet, his veto, and his support of #FightingSiouxForever and the sorority’s actions.
Amber told me that the beneficial financial impact that comes from the Wacipi powwow is huge, not only to UND but also to Grand Forks, with an estimated 3 million dollar (based on 2006 figures) which is pumped into the economy.
Finley said she couldn’t understand how Creamer could link Gamma Phi Beta and his #FightingSiouxForever tweet, since the sorority has nothing to do with the retired mascot and logo. Nothing, that is, except for the controversial banner referencing the retired mascot. Although Creamer admitted his timing for the tweet was bad, it rung hollow when he followed it up by saying he wouldn’t do anything differently because to him UND will always be the ‘FightingSiouxForever’. Finley believes that Creamer’s actions and statements reveal a personal agenda; an agenda which is further supported by the creation of #rolltribe and other merchandise which are aimed at sending the message that Nick, and others like him will always support the retired mascot and logo regardless of the fact that it is racist or offensive.
In the midst of Nick’s tweets, came a veto of the additional funds needed for the buffalo feed associated with Time Out Week and the Wacipi Powwow. First, Amber explained that the thousands of dollars in grants and fundraising used for the Time Out Week events and Wacipi powwow are all essentially absorbed back into the university in the form of rental fees and costs.
UND has several sporting facilities, many of which are used by students for games and other informal events without a fee. However, UNDIA is charged a whopping $15,000, according to Amber, to rent a facility (which is rarely in use) to put on the powwow on their own campus, and another $3-4,000 dollars for parking to host guests who attend the event. On top of all that, UNDIA has to foot the bill for the extra security which has to be hired for the event weekend, as well as pay performers fees and prizes for winning contestants.
The veto which would defund the buffalo feed, was seen by Native students as another failure on the part of Nick Creamer, the Student Senate and UND to show proper appreciation of Time Out Week, the Wacipi powwow, and by extension, the Native Students and their guests to the event. Even the city of Grand Forks (and its hotels, restaurants and shopping centers), which benefit yearly to the tune of millions of dollars because of the powwow, only allocated $10,000 dollars to UNDIA for this year’s event. Amber added further that the city of Grand Forks also informed UNDIA that funding will be decreased in future years and eventually no city funds will be allocated to support the powwow that brings GF millions every year.
This negative attitude felt by Native students and people toward this event week and powwow and funding its approximately $150,000 annual budget, is made more poignant by the fact that while Nick Creamer excused his behavior with an argument that amounted to saying that UNDIA received $20,000, which is two and a half times more money than any other student group or association, during the same week the student senate voted to allocate $160,000 for a student dance featuring Wiz Khalifa, a hip-hop artist whose lyrics promote drug use and the sexual objectification of women. They also allocated another $19,200 to send 48 concert choir students to Cuba. Again, that’s nearly $20,000 for just 48 students, when the Time Out Week events, the Wacipi powwow and buffalo feed are free and open to the public and all students.
As an aside, it should be noted that some student senators called for a special meeting to try to overturn Nick Cramer’s veto. Unfortunately none of the students who came to speak in favor of overturning the veto given an opportunity speak. Native students and observers who attended the meeting, including Amber Finley, said the instructions about when students would be allowed to speak were confusing and that all students were instructed not to discuss anything happening on campus other than the matter of the feed, yet two rows of white students showed up in full Fighting Sioux gear as an intimidating force during the vote. The veto stood. Undeterred, UNDIA, Native students and allies put out a public call to come up with the funds needed to put on the buffalo feed. The Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation responded swiftly with its Tribal Business Council approving a motion to fund the feed, which was proudly tweeted by Twyla Baker-Demaray from @Indigenia saying “Minutes ago the MHA Nation Tribal Business Council just approved a motion to #FundTheFeed. Because sovereignty. *Drops Mic*”
Putting the mascot to rest and the rancor behind them will be difficult for Natives on or off UND’s campus. As you can glean from this story and the full length podcast interviews that follow, there’s a lot more to this story than most people know. And North Dakota’s state legislature hasn’t helped matters when it comes to putting the mascot to rest because they passed a law that does not allow UND to choose a new mascot until 2015; essentially leaving students and fans at UND in a living limbo where they can neither use the past logo, nor begin to find a new one. Further aggravating matters is the fact that radio announcers, TV personalities, sports announcers, business owners, TV commercials and even schools continue to use the term Fighting Sioux rather than simply saying UND. As if that weren’t enough, rather than see it as an embarrassment to his state, former North Dakota legislator and Insurance Commissioner, Jim Poolman proudly posted publicly on his Facebook yesterday that security had to be called to his private suite in Philadelphia during UND’s and Minnesota’s Frozen Four hockey game, by the NCAA to ask him to remove his illegal Fighting Sioux flag which prompting one of the many respondents on his post to make the racially insensitive suggestion that Poolman “Scalp them. Then smoke some Peyote”.
The road for Native students and all UND students when it comes to the contentious and racist legacy of the retired Indian mascot and logo will be a hard one. But if the resolve of these four Native American leaders is any indicator of the future for UND students, then we can safely assume future generations will continue to fight endlessly to be recognized, valued and treated with the respect all students on campus deserve.