National news media cover Harper apology; College, UND reactions mixed

by William Schpero | 11/28/06 6:00am

WEB UPDATE, November 28, 6:00 a.m.

A week since Dartmouth Athletic Director Josie Harper apologized in The Dartmouth for hosting the University of North Dakota "Fighting Sioux" in a December hockey tournament, dozens of national and regional media outlets have seized upon the growing controversy over the incident.

In the Nov. 21 letter to the editor, Harper apologized for scheduling UND when its presence "will understandably offend and hurt people within our community." She also noted that UND's position toward its "Fighting Sioux" nickname is "offensive and wrong."

Reaction to this nationally publicized issue -- featured in The Boston Globe, Inside Higher Ed and the front page of ESPN.com -- has been mixed. Many students, faculty and alumni at Dartmouth and UND are both appreciative and critical of Harper's comments. Nonetheless, the overwhelmingly vocal feedback has criticized the letter.

Many of those who disapproved of Harper's letter said it improperly focused on UND as opposed to highlighting Dartmouth's specific problems.

Donald Anderson, a vocal critic who graduated from UND in 1965, questioned the overall appropriateness of the letter.

"North Dakota is pervasive with Indian culture," Anderson said. "I think [the letter is] just wrong because [Harper] has commented on something she really doesn't understand."

Jennifer Behr-Devlin, a junior at UND, echoed Anderson's beliefs.

"I think it was really inappropriate -- she is insinuating that the problems that [Dartmouth's] campus is having are the same problems that UND is having," she said.

In an interview with The Dartmouth on Monday, Harper said she thought many people had misperceived the letter. She said the intention of the letter was not to make a statement toward UND, but to address timely issues at Dartmouth.

"Hindsight is 20-20, and if I had to do it over again I probably would have wanted to be as strong and clear to [the Dartmouth] population as possible of how I felt," Harper said. "Maybe it would have been better to say how North Dakota deals with this is their own issue, and I'm addressing the folks here at Dartmouth about how we will deal with [our] issues."

Harper's letter responded, in part, to a two-page advertisement in The Dartmouth sponsored by the College's Native American Council. The advertisement outlined what the organization said were incidences of racism and injustice on campus and coincided with the release of a letter by College President James Wright discussing his concerns on the matter.

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Wright said he thinks "it is unfortunate that some people set out to make other people feel less welcome."

Countering criticisms of Harper, some Native American students at UND praised the letter.

"We are pleased that we have support nationally, even if we don't have it locally," said Monique Vondall-Rieke, director of the Native American Media Center at UND. "The majority of the Native American population are against [UND's nickname]."

Frank Sage, president of UND's Bridges Native American student group, criticized the UND administration for not making an effort to curb discrimination on campus and applauded Harper's statement. Bridges has been a vocal opponent of UND's decision to maintain the "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

"I would say that is probably one of the first baby steps in the right direction and that [Dartmouth] is one of the only schools to apologize about any mascots or logos coming onto their campus," Sage said.

Native American students at the College who spoke with The Dartmouth said they shared this sentiment.

"I think it was necessary that [Harper] took this action given all of the issues of cultural sensitivity that have been going on this term," said Schuyler Chew '09, co-president of Native Americans at Dartmouth. "I believe we should not play teams that have Native American mascots -- allowing them to play is in violation of [Dartmouth's] principle of community."

Wright, while clarifying that Harper's statement was not necessarily indicative of overall College policy, affirmed the letter's acceptability.

"I would never discourage any of my colleagues from sharing their views -- I was not aware that she sent [the letter] but I have no problem with her sending it," Wright said. "I have tremendous regard for Josie Harper as an athletic director as she has done an exceptional job and she's running a first-rate program."

Wright went on to assert, however, that Dartmouth would honor its agreement to host UND this year.

"North Dakota is coming here to play hockey and we'll welcome them warmly -- they've always had a good hockey team," Wright said, noting that "it is time to assess" College policy on hosting teams with Native American symbols.

Harper explained that her letter was approved by Dean of the College Dan Nelson and other upper-level administrators before she submitted it to The Dartmouth. Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Harper also stated that Brian Austin, senior associate director of Dartmouth intercollegiate athletics, had given prior notice to UND Athletic Director Tom Buning about the letter. UND is presently involved in a lawsuit with the NCAA over its continued use of the nickname "Fighting Sioux".

"[Buning] said that [UND] goes through this all the time, that people have even dropped them off of their schedules," Harper said. "We assured them that when they came [to Dartmouth] there would be no disrespect and we would run a first-class tournament."

Harper explained that the College will soon begin to explore its policy on hosting teams with Native American mascots.

"I think the president is putting together a committee, and we are going to work with the Native American community and Student Assembly to talk about how we can be a little more sensitive and helpful in educating our students, and educating even ourselves," Harper said. "We will be reviewing our policy as to whether or not we will engage in scheduling contests with schools [that have nicknames or mascots of this nature]."

UND's Office of University Relations referred all questions to the state attorney general's office, given the University's pending legal action with the NCAA. Liz Brocker, spokesperson for the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, declined to comment.

Harper said she hoped the end result would increase awareness of Native American issues on campus.

"This is a time for challenging and interesting dialogue," Harper said. "It is not a time to pick up and start throwing stones again."