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'IT'S NOT A LOGO': 'Fighting Sioux' artist says symbolism always intended to 'bridge all the gaps'

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 23, 2011.

The image Bennett Brien created a dozen years ago, borne into a cauldron of zealous admiration and bitter controversy and destined apparently for retirement by the end of this year, should not be called a logo, the artist insists.

"It's not a logo," he said. "It's a symbol."

And the symbolism of the Native American man depicted in his design has been misunderstood, he said.

"His gaze is really focused and determined. You need that in life, no matter who you are, when you're searching for truth," Brien said.

"The feathers stand for the brave and honorable things you do in life, whether you are a Sioux warrior from before or a student today trying to get an education or anyone making a sacrifice to do good."

He chose colors for the Fighting Sioux emblem to convey more symbolism.

"The green is one of UND's colors, but it also symbolizes the gifts of the Earth and growth in all kinds of ways -- in education, in maturity," he said.

"Yellow symbolizes the sun's warmth and light, necessary as we continue on life's journey. The red is the life blood given to us by the creator and our ancestors, that we may be here. And the white is for purity of mind, respect for life, and respect for all peoples.

"It's not like a 'Gopher' or a 'Badger' -- it's way above that," Brien said. "The 'politically correct' people misinterpreted it."

Brien, 54, an artist whose displayed work includes a buffalo and horse on the Capitol grounds in Bismarck, created the "Fighting Sioux" emblem for UND in 1999, at a time when the nickname controversy was heating up and critics objected to earlier logos as demeaning to American Indians.

He is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. He acknowledges that some Sioux people who oppose UND's use of the name and logo may resent the fact that he is Chippewa, but he notes that his children are part Sioux, "and Chippewa, Cree and French," and he didn't model his artwork on any one figure or any one tribe.

"I wasn't necessarily thinking of the Sioux tribe," he said. "I was thinking about my own tribe, and all tribes, and really all the people of North Dakota. I had in mind the Eskimos, too, the Apaches, the extinct tribes that were here before us -- even the white pioneers and people all over the world who have good qualities, who strive to be good.

"I did it for them, for the Fighting Sioux (teams) at UND, but I had a broader, wider thing in my mind, a universal thing. I thought it would bridge all the gaps."

'Just an artist'

After a delegation of North Dakota political and higher education leaders failed this month to persuade the NCAA to relent in its campaign against UND's use of the Sioux name and American Indian imagery, the State Board of Higher Education directed the university to restart its transition away from the more than 80-year-old symbols.

The transition had been halted after the Legislature enshrined the Fighting Sioux name in state law this spring. As a result of the state's meeting with the NCAA in Indianapolis Aug. 12, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he will ask legislative leaders to return authority over the nickname to the state board.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader and author of the nickname law, was part of the state delegation to Indianapolis. He has said he won't take the initiative to repeal or amend his legislation, but he indicated he won't stand in the way.

Brien said he will be sad to see his Fighting Sioux image fade, but life goes on.

"Of course, I'm disappointed," he said. "But there are so many other problems we've got, real problems. Why spend all your energy on this?

"And I'm just an artist, you know."

He is teaching art classes at Turtle Mountain Community College, and he is working on new sketches, paintings and sculptures from his studio in Belcourt -- a studio he created with the modest payments he received for his "Fighting Sioux" painting and the 17-foot-high "Soaring Eagle" fashioned from rebar that guards a patch of native prairie grasses and flowers behind UND's Chester Fritz Library.

He also is carving two figures, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, from an elm tree by St. Anne's Catholic Church in Belcourt, where his parents were married and where he and six siblings attended services.

"I'm about a month and a half into it," he said of the wood sculpture, which will be about 11 feet tall. "It sure is interesting work, but it's hard. That old elm tree has three different grains of wood in it."

'Beautiful, respectful'

His "Fighting Sioux" was commissioned by Earl Strinden, former head of the UND Alumni Association and a key figure in recent years in the effort to save the nickname.

Strinden said he took the painting to then-UND President Charles Kupchella, who liked it and asked to keep it in his office so he could show visitors. Kupchella was embroiled in the nickname-logo controversy and was hoping a new logo would quiet some critics.

"I said it should be a classic one, it should be beautiful and it should be respectful, and this piece of art that Ben came up with met all those criteria," Kupchella said this week.

"We were trying to get away from those logos that were cartoonish images of Indian people, and this was a very nice work of art," he said. "It not only showed some creativity, but Bennett had built into it the symbolism, the things he thought the picture represented.

"It was quite a good story, I thought, and if anything was going to work, it would be something like that."

Lucy Ganje, a professor of art at UND and a member of the Campus Committee for Human Rights, has been a leading opponent of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

"The image itself is not the issue," she said. "It's how the image is being used. It was not commissioned as a piece of art but as a sports logo, so the meaning we draw from it is always based on the context in which it's used."

An end to squabbles

Brien said he believes the great majority of people at UND and beyond treated the Fighting Sioux name and his artwork with respect, and he blames the occasional bigoted and stereotyping antics of "dummies" among Sioux fans and others for fueling opposition.

"They just really helped the opponents out," he said, citing for example a sorority party on campus where some students dressed in fringed leather and breechclouts and wore paint.

He said he doesn't see newspapers very often, and his TV reception near the Canadian border is poor, so he hasn't closely followed the intense debate of the past few years.

"People would sometimes come by and drop off an article, but I put them in a drawer. Maybe I'll take them out and read them some day."

A brother, Chuck Brien, who works in Grand Forks, called him with the news of the Indianapolis summit.

"He said, 'Well, it's officially over.' But I've heard that so many times."

Brien does not own the rights to the logo. "I signed over everything to the university," he said. He remains proud of his art, which often has been called one of the most attractive logos -- or symbols -- in American sports.

"I went through a lot of sketches and worked on it for a week, a couple weeks," he said. "I was doing different sketches, different views, and it just started falling into place.

"I like to say it's a self-portrait," he said, laughing.

"And I've got a cousin who says it's him." Another laugh.

"When it was done," Brien said, "I looked at it and said, 'No way anybody's not going to like this. This will end all the squabbles, and everything will be cool.'"

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com.

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