Judy Henderson, of Greenville, N.C., showed her Gophers spirit as she waited for the parade before the Outback Bowl.  Photo: Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

What does Ski-U-Mah mean and how do you pronounce it?

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Fifty years after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Chuck Newton’s curiosity finally got the best of him. After all, how could so many people say it for so long and have no idea what it means?

Turn on any U football game and you will see thousands of Gophers fans loudly chanting the “Minnesota Rouser,” singing: “Firm and strong, united are we. Rah, rah, rah, for Ski-U-Mah.”

Ski-U-What? Ski-U-Mah.

If you watched P.J. Fleck’s first interview as the new Gophers head football coach a few years ago, then you heard him vigorously say the phrase as he described his future expectations for the program. Ski-U-Mah seemed to pair nicely with Fleck’s “row the boat,” the coach’s oft-repeated mantra.

If you’re unsure what Ski-U-Mah means, you’re probably not alone. Newton, who grew up in Robbinsdale, yelled the phrase for six years as a U student without ever thinking too much about its meaning.

“I went to a lot of football games in the old stadium. I think I knew how to pronounce it because you heard everyone around you singing it that way, but nobody had a clue what they were saying,” he said.

So Newton turned to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project, to ask: What does Ski-U-Mah mean?

Let’s start with the pronunciation. The “Ski” is pronounced “sky,” not “skee” like the winter sport. The “U” is pronounced as “you”, while the “Mah” is pronounced as you’d expect — no surprises there.

According to the U’s Marching Band Centennial Book, “Minnesota Hats Off to Thee,” rugby captain John Adams coined the phrase in 1884 after seeing a group of Dakota boys cheering on a canoe race and yelling, “Ski-Yoo!” the Dakota word for victory. Adams took a particular liking to the words, so he incorporated them into a song for the athletic teams. He added “Mah” so it rhymed with the traditional college fight song lyrics “rah, rah, rah.”

The university’s official website for the marching band expands on the phrase’s creation: “Mr. Adams, who was somewhat familiar with Indian life in his younger days, remembered that this cry was almost invariably used by young Indians when winning an athletic contest of any kind and that the Dakota children generally used this exclamation to express exultation or pleasure,” the website says.

“I don’t know that there’s been a ton of education about it. I know that our athletes know,” said Betsy McCann, director of athletic bands at the U. Outside the realm of athletics, students “were never really told about it,” she said.

Newton doesn’t remember anything about the fight song included in student orientation during his time at the U. The only orientation students received was a day showing you how to navigate the campus.

McCann supports the research behind the Marching Band Centennial Book, but puts an equal emphasis on the scholarship of Dakotas who say the story behind Ski-U-Mah may encompass a little more myth than reality.

Ryan Dixon, a language teacher for the Lower Sioux Indian Community, said Ski-U-Mah doesn’t really mean anything at all. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the phrase that arose from Adams’ account doesn’t carry a translation in Dakota.

“Clearly the story we have passed down is kind of a feel-good story,” McCann said. “I can certainly see it being a story that’s been passed down through generations and become a legend in its own way.”

Despite its debated origins, the esoteric lore of Ski-U-Mah won’t keep Gophers fans in TCF Bank Stadium and Williams and Mariucci arenas from singing the popular phrase anytime soon.

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