Saturday, August 20, 2005

The National Collegiate Athletic Association created some wiggle room yesterday in its recent decision to ban American Indian imagery, announcing that it would give latitude to universities whose “namesake” tribe supports the mascot.

A newly formed staff committee charged with reviewing appeals to the Aug. 5 ruling will take into account the university’s relationship with the tribe as a “primary factor,” according to a statement released yesterday by the NCAA.

The announcement was good news at the home of the Fighting Sioux — the University of North Dakota, whose president fired off a letter last week announcing his intention to appeal the decision and, if necessary, take the matter to court.

But Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, said a tribal council’s seal of approval shouldn’t stop the NCAA from enforcing its ruling, which would ban American Indian nicknames and imagery in postseason tournaments.

Yesterday’s decision by the NCAA also was hailed at Florida State University — the home of the Seminoles, which enjoys a strong relationship with the Seminole Nation of Florida. On June 17, the tribal council voted unanimously to affirm “its ongoing support of the university’s use of its name and symbols.”

“We are hopeful that the NCAA will recognize the sovereignty of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and respect its support of Florida State University’s use of the Seminole name,” FSU President T.K. Wetherell said yesterday.

However, Mr. Bellecourt called the Seminole council members “hang-around-the-fort Indians,” a reference to American Indians who were friendly with the U.S. Army and set up camp near their forts during the 1800s.

“The tribal leaders don’t speak for all Seminoles, and there are Seminoles who oppose the use of the Seminole name as a sports mascot,” said Mr. Bellecourt, a member of the Objiwe Nation in Minnesota.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said Florida State was the only university among the 18 with nicknames deemed “hostile or abusive” to have filed a formal appeal. The committee will begin considering the appeal Monday.

University of North Dakota President Charles E. Kupchella had said he was “stunned” and “angry” to see the Fighting Sioux included on the list of “hostile or abusive” mascots.

He noted that the university has no mascot, just a name and a logo designed by Ben Brien, a well-known Indian artist.

What’s more, Mr. Kupchella said, the logo is almost identical to those found on U.S. coins and North Dakota Highway Patrol cars.

It’s almost impossible to escape Indian references and names in North Dakota and its surrounding states, he said.

“I think you should find my confusion here understandable, since obviously if we were to call our teams ‘The Dakotans,’ we would actually be in more direct violation of what apparently the NCAA is trying to establish as a rule, even though this is the name of our state,” Mr. Kupchella said in an Aug. 12 letter to the NCAA.

The state’s two Sioux tribes are divided on the nickname issue. The Spirit Lake Sioux traditionally have supported the name, while the Standing Rock Sioux have opposed it, university spokesman Peter Johnson said.

The school can hardly be considered “hostile” to American Indians, university officials said. It enrolls 400 American Indian students and offers a wide array of specialized programs, including Indians in Medicine, which Mr. Kupchella credited with generating 20 percent of the nation’s American Indian doctors.

“I am very proud when I visit reservations in our state to see that a large number of the teachers, doctors, college presidents and other leaders are graduates of the University of North Dakota,” Mr. Kupchella said. “Do you really expect us to host a tournament in which these names and images are covered in some way that would imply that we are ashamed of them?”

Mr. Bellecourt said the university’s argument reminded him of Southerners who supported Jim Crow laws. “It’s ‘separate but equal’ all over again,” he said.

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