Dumb College Hijinks and Cultural Reconciliation in North Dakota

Just when you thought race relations on the northern Great Plains were moving into a new era of greater respect and sensitivity, along comes a disheartening setback. By now you are aware that a group of University of North Dakota students wore t-shirts to an off-campus Grand Forks event called Springfest that featured a caricature of a male Indian in a feathered headdress drinking from a beer bong, with the words "Siouxper Drunk" displayed in bold capital letters above the imagery.

UND President Robert Kelley issued a statement condemning the message on the shirts as "an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community." Kelley rightly pointed out that Springfest was not a university event and it did not occur on campus. North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the shirts exhibited "ignorance, intolerance and hatefulness." Skogen, who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Indian relations, said, "I am indignant about the disrespect conveyed in the repulsive messages on those T-shirts and how this conduct hurts those insulted."

The tastelessness of the stunt would be hard to exaggerate. The stereotype of the "drunken Indian" is one of the most vicious slurs in the long sad history of white-Indian relations. Alcoholism is a serious problem in the American Indian population (as it is in my white family). It has complex roots involving trade policies, poverty, unemployment, forced assimilation, unviable reservations, cultural collapse, and despair—but the best way to think about it is within the context of the conquest of the continent by Euro-Americans between 1492 and 1953 (the year Garrison Dam was dedicated). It is, in the terms of the great University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick, just one of the "Legacies of Conquest." The only decent response by non-Indians looking at this problem from the outside in would be magnanimity, sadness, sympathy, a willingness to pitch in in any way outsiders can (by funding every useful treatment and education program), and a willingness to explore the historical dynamics of colonialism in the history of the United States. Needless to say, "drunken Indian" gags, even if not intended to be racist, even if they have more to do with collegiate hijinks than with a deliberate intention to hurt, are profoundly insensitive and ugly.

In addition to that, the t-shirt incident has to be seen as yet one more in a long series of aftershocks following the official retirement of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo in 2012. I doubt that the nitwits who hatched the t-shirt gag knew how darkly they were scratching one of the most serious cultural wounds in North Dakota life. They are probably just as bewildered by the storm of outrage that has followed their stunt as all the rest of us are by the gross insensitivity of what they did. I very much doubt that they set out to be hateful. Still, when you see the images of the offensive shirts, in group photos of students hamming for the camera with the now-inevitable "thumbs up" and "oh, yeah!" pose, all you can do is shake your head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

We can all follow the dumb logic of some late night planning session: "Sioux=Sue=Sioux-per—cool!; since we plan to get wasted at Springfest after a long winter semester; wouldn't it be a cute commentary on the whole mascot controversy to …?" The thing I cannot understand is why someone in the student group didn't say, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea. Don't you think this is going to upset a lot of people? Let's keep brainstorming." As the controversy heated up, the t-shirt fulfillment company, CustomInk, released a statement, saying, "We handle hundreds of thousands of custom t-shirt designs each year and have people review them to catch problematic content. But we missed this one." Really? They might want to fine-tune their "problematic content" meter.

My view is that the best response to these students is not to punish them but to use this as an opportunity to teach them (and all the rest of us) to be more thoughtful about inter-cultural relations. In essence, the lesson is really simple: one culture should always be very careful about the ways it describes, depicts, or appropriates the iconography of another culture. This is a particularly important thing for historically-dominant cultures to remember when characterizing historically-subject cultures.

Meanwhile, I think we need to calm down. We are living now in the Era of Cultural Outrage—on both sides, on virtually every question. Spend half an evening hour on Fox, then half an hour on MSNBC and you will get a lifetime supply. Outrage can be fun—it is certainly good for ratings—but is almost always oversimplifies complex situations and reinforces cultural and political polarization, rather than lead to a more harmonious and enlightened community. These students did not come out of a vacuum. They are products of a certain cultural milieu. They have grown up at a time when North Dakota is groping its way towards a new understanding of the lives, the history, the culture, the religious observances, and the challenges of our Indian neighbors, whose homelands we inhabit: the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Cree, and Dakota. The UND incident is, among other things, an indication of how much cultural healing we still need to pursue at UND, in North Dakota, and throughout the United States. The fact that there is a substantial American constituency that still regards the name Washington "Redskins" as inoffensive is a sure sign that the road to cultural harmony is going to be a long one. It is going to take a very deep commitment to mutual understanding and reconciliation on both sides, and a remarkable level of patience and tolerance—in both the Indian and the non-Indian community.

The worst thing about the UND t-shirt slur is that it comes at a time when there is such good news in Indian Country. More American Indians are graduating from high school than ever before. More are going to college than ever before, and many are earning advanced professional degrees. There is good and hopeful economic news on the reservations—thanks to casinos, energy development, mining, increased investment in tribal businesses. Reservation nutrition programs are making progress in addressing diabetes and other major health concerns. Tribal colleges (for which North Dakota has been a pioneer) are doing really important work--at home--where most Indians prefer to be educated. A broad national pan-Indian cultural renaissance is now entering its second phase. Some Native American languages are making a slow comeback. A significant burst of new Native American literature has emerged in the past couple of decades, led by one of our most gifted living writers Louise Erdrich.

This sort of incident rattles around every coffee shop and bar in North Dakota for a couple of weeks. I heard some pretty ugly remarks from people who know better while I was writing these words. This is a golden learning opportunity for all of us, but I hope we remember that these are, after all, college students, doing the dumb stuff that college students do (remember?), and that we need to give more attention to their cultural enlightenment than to the easy art of righteous condemnation.