I was talking to a former NHL executive Wednesday afternoon about mascots. We tossed around the question of where to draw the line between a mascot and a character. What separates the woman dressed up as Snow White at Disneyworld from the Leprechaun at Notre Dame? Are they mascots or characters? What about the Atlanta Braves’ Chief Noc-A-Homa?
Somehow the Spanish word for “pets,” mascotas, entered the discussion, and that rekindled my gut feeling about what a mascot should be: Furry and non-human. But that’s just my opinion. A team doesn’t need a mascot, though they are always popular with the kids. I once covered a minor-league hockey team that had three mascots, turning each game into a Disneyland-type experience and proving that a team can have too many. In the NHL, the Stars, Oilers, Rangers and Flyers have zero mascots. That might be too few.
At the bare minimum a team could use a nickname, which brings us to the curious case of the University of North Dakota. Officially, UND is just UND. No nickname. Its logo is an interlocking ND, similar to the more famous University of Notre Dame logo. In 2005 the NCAA decided the nickname in use at UND since 1930 — the Sioux (since the 1960s, the “Fighting Sioux”) — was “hostile and abusive.” In June 2012, state voters collectively banned the nickname, and the accompanying mascot and logo, at the polls. A few days later, the state’s Board of Higher Education officially banished the Sioux nickname to the history books. The university is prohibited from adopting a new team name until 2015.
Meanwhile, “Fighting Irish” has failed to adequately abuse anyone in power.
The point here is not to re-ignite the debate about the Sioux nickname. That nickname is gone. The point is to illustrate the consequences of not having a nickname. In this case, fans at UND hockey games chant “Let’s Go Sioux.” If I’m counting correctly, “U-N-D” is also three syllables, but this isn’t as catchy. It’s three letters.
Three letters can be used to form a lot of things. They don’t easily form the basis of an identity, and that’s what “Sioux” was all about, at least in the beginning. Dr. Erich Longie, writing on the website spiritlakeconsulting.com, explored the origins of the nickname:
During the fall semester of 1930, two University of North Dakota students didn’t feel powerful about attending a school that had a nickname called the Flicker Tails, especially when their rival school was called the Bison. In a sport like football, the game is about physical strength, endurance, strategic plays, and mental toughness. I imagined a Flicker Tail not having much of a chance in a match against a Bison if they really had to battle it out. Not only is a Flicker Tail a small ground squirrel, but you can’t really fit it into any cheers and have the cheerleaders yell it out to the fans. It really doesn’t rhyme with any words either. So what kind of name would really fit the sports teams, pep rally cheers, and songs to be able to stand up to Bison? According to Dakota Student newspaper, two students (these two students are nameless and the UND special collection microfilm starts from September 17, 1930) suggested the word “Sioux,” which is a better agent for exterminating Bison. Sioux have a war like physique and it easily rhymes with other words for yelling cheers and songs.
By voting to remove the school’s nickname, and not replacing it with anything, the state of North Dakota effectively did in 2012 what the school did to the Sioux Nation in 1930: It hijacked an identity. (On a much smaller scale, of course.) Eighty-four years later, the Sioux people have a small slice of their identity back. UND fans have nothing really, other than a couple interlocking letters. So of course they chant “Let’s Go Sioux.” It’s familiar and it’s functional. It brings the crowd together, and it reminds them of something capable of defeating bison.
The solution, albeit three years too late, is simply to replace “Sioux” with something catchy and powerful. Preferably, something furry and non-human. Not a squirrel. Something UND fans could latch on to that wouldn’t make them miss “Sioux.”
It’s a delicate choice, but it shouldn’t take a year to decide. I remember back to Thanksgiving 2010, when an American Hockey League team changed its nickname, mascot, geographical identifier and logo right in the middle of a season. Overnight, the Hartford Wolf Pack became the Connecticut Whale. The conversion was hashed out the previous off-season; it’s not as if a new set of uniforms were designed and threaded in one day. Still, it’s a useful reminder that a team doesn’t have to go three years without a nickname. It’s possible to have two in one season.
Would a mascot, a nickname, or a better sense of identity have helped UND beat the University of Minnesota in its Frozen Four semifinal this week? Maybe.
My suggestion: Stick the “Project Runway” contestants on this one. They’re always up for a good challenge. I trust Heidi Klum to evaluate a good hockey sweater.