VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Los Angeles Lakers coach and University of North Dakota alum Phil Jackson received an honorary doctorate Aug. 25 at an academic convocation at the University of North Dakota.
He then stunned some members of the crowd and silenced others when he asked for the university to remove the “Fighting Sioux” team name and logo.
“My Lakota friends have asked me to speak about this issue,” Jackson said.
Jackson asked people “to stop objectifying American Indian people and culture and move forward” and ended with a challenge to the North Dakota Board of Higher Education to “step up with a big mind” and to make change “from our own back yard.”
Attending the convocation was Lucy Annis Ganjé, former director of the Native Media Center at UND. She commented on what happened at the event.
“When he spoke, there was no reaction from the crowd; nobody interrupted with applause, but nobody booed, either. Everybody is talking about it. I’ve been hearing things like, ‘You know, he makes a lot of sense,’ or ‘He is so gracious, that I think this is maybe the way we should go.’
“It felt like people were finally listening. We’ve had Native leaders speaking about the name, and it may say something that people finally listened when a sports figure says something; but regardless, I did feel like people were listening.”
She also noted mixed responses to Jackson’s comments on the Grand Forks Herald newspaper’s Web site immediately following the posting of a story on his visit.
Comments ran the gamut. Jackson was called a hippie punk, a hillbilly and a hypocrite. But some did show support of Jackson’s comments.
B.J. Rainbow, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and president of the University of North Dakota Indian Association, met with Jackson before the honorary degree was conferred.
Jackson was honored with gifts from Rainbow, including a hacienda-style blanket, a purple and yellow-beaded medallion made by Rainbow’s wife, and a sage smudge stick made by Rainbow himself. Students at the association sang honor songs to Jackson.
After the coach’s visit with students, he went on to receive his honorary degree.
Rainbow also attended Phil Jackson’s convocation. Rainbow was the banner carrier for the Department of Education and Human Development. Rainbow remarked on Jackson’s comments against the Fighting Sioux name and logo to the UND audience.
“You could have heard a pin drop. Nobody said anything during his speech. Even when the president of the school and the governor were talking, people were shouting things like ‘You’re the best NBA coach!’ but said nothing when Jackson spoke at all.
“A lot of people were sitting with their hands crossed, but some peers and I were clapping. He kind of snuck it in there.”
Rainbow also shared his opinion on the controversial name and logo. “Why can’t we make this change? In the university world, it’s all about learn who you are and about the people you come from – but they still want to make money off of it. They want us to stand up for ourselves, and we are but we are getting ridiculed by society. But it’s not a sense of us going against society: it’s us going against history.”
In 2007, the NCAA proclaimed that the university had three years to obtain support from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock reservations. If they do not provide the support, the university will be required to change the Fighting Sioux name. At this point, support is not likely to come.
Jesse Taken Alive, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal council member who served as chairman from 1993 to 1997, was pleased with Jackson’s remarks. “It’s a good step for human relations between American Indians and the University of North Dakota. We are hopeful that they will change the name.
“We understand the money involved, but the university fails to see the human perspective. This is a human rights issue, not a monetary issue.”
Chase Iron Eyes, management specialist from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a UND alum, also remarked on the comments. “It was definitely appreciated by the tribe. It always helps to have a celebrity deliver information to the public. This is critical because we learn through the avenues of multimedia.”
Iron Eyes expressed particular thanks to Jackson’s use of the term “objectification” in reference to the use of the UND team’s name and logo. He also called for the end of the Fighting Sioux team name and logo, citing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s standing resolutions against their use. “Our tribe has not supported this since 1969.”