Sioux fight in ND House over UND nickname

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Supporters of the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname took their case to the state Legislature on Wednesday in an attempt to reverse the North Dakota Board of Higher Education's decision to retire it.

Although the NCAA considers the nickname an affront to American Indians, the vitriol from nickname debates has been mostly directed at its Indian supporters, a Spirit Lake Sioux tribal member said Wednesday at a hearing of the state House's Education Committee.

"Hostile and abusive is more descriptive of the treatment that Spirit Lake has received from the higher ed board, the NCAA, the news media, and opponents to the nickname," said John Chaske, of Fort Totten.

Chaske was one of a group of eight Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members who unsuccessfully sued the board in an attempt to delay the end of the nickname's use.

The Education Committee is reviewing three separate bills that are meant to reverse the board's decision to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and an accompanying logo, which shows the square-jawed profile of an American Indian warrior. Both are scheduled to be discontinued in August.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, would block the Board of Higher Education and the university from dropping the nickname and logo. It instructs Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to consider suing the NCAA if the association penalizes UND for keeping the name.

The other two measures, sponsored by Reps. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, and Duane DeKrey, R-Tappen, direct UND to keep the nickname and logo unless members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, voting in a reservation referendum, tell the university they may no longer be used.

The legislation comes almost six years after the NCAA prodded 18 colleges, including UND, to drop their American Indian school nicknames on the grounds that they were hostile and abusive.

UND then sued the NCAA, with the two sides agreeing to an October 2007 settlement that gave the university until November 2010 to coax the state's Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes into endorsing the continued use of the logo and nickname. The Spirit Lake tribe did so, but the Standing Rock tribe has declined.

"Some people ask, isn't this bill too late?" Monson said during the Education Committee's hearing. "My response is, it's never too late to right a wrong. The Sioux people were wronged when the board and chancellor didn't listen to their voices."

Two Standing Rock Sioux tribal councilmen, Jesse Taken Alive and Joseph A. McNeil, said the nickname has helped provoke racist taunts and assaults on UND's campus.

McNeil said the Standing Rock tribal constitution does not provide for the sort of popular referendum envisioned by DeKrey and Monson.

Taken Alive and McNeil compared the lawmakers' wish for a Standing Rock referendum to South Dakota lawmakers demanding that North Dakota hold a vote on an issue, or Mandan's governing board doing the same for neighboring Bismarck.

"You have to vote. How would you feel?" Taken Alive asked committee lawmakers. "Would that be a sign of disrespect? Absolutely. Absolutely."

McNeil said a referendum would raise a number of questions, including whether the votes of Standing Rock tribal members in South Dakota should be counted in resolving a North Dakota issue, he said.

"We're not going to change overnight because within the last two years, all of a sudden, we need to have a vote," McNeil said. "It's ridiculous for Mandan to think that they're going to have Bismarck force a vote on something that Mandan wants. Bismarck is going to want to know, who is going to spend the money to have this vote?"

The hearing, which lasted more than eight hours into Wednesday night, drew more than 150 people at its peak, including delegations of students who were visiting the Capitol.

Supporters of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo greatly outnumbered its critics. They included state legislators, Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members, and Ryan Dunnigan, 14, a nephew of state Rep. Lisa Meier, R-Bismarck, the Education Committee's vice chairwoman.

Dunnigan said he "got a history lesson" from watching a video on Sioux traditions that is played at UND hockey games.

"I think if you take away the Fighting Sioux nickname, you're taking away a great part of North Dakota's history and tradition," he said. "To me, this is the only reason why I know about the great Sioux tribe, other than spending a few days in school learning about them."

Chaske spoke of taking his two grandchildren to see their first UND hockey game, where he said they were impressed by the proliferation of jerseys, caps and other regalia featuring the Fighting Sioux name and the American Indian head logo.

"At that moment, they were proud to be Sioux," Chaske said. "And I thought, 'Why would anyone want to destroy this?'"

Robert Kelley, UND's president, said the legislation would essentially force the university to break an agreement it negotiated with the NCAA to resolve the nickname lawsuit, and could affect the school's ability to negotiate other contracts.

The NCAA has not ordered the Grand Forks school to discard the nickname and logo, but the university will not be able to host postseason tournaments if it continues using them. UND teams also would not be allowed to wear their normal uniforms during postseason play.

Jon Backes, president of the Board of Higher Education, said the sanctions shouldn't be taken lightly. Of the schools fingered by the NCAA for using American Indian nicknames, logos or mascots, all but UND have either made changes or obtained approval from their namesake Indian tribes to continue as before, Backes said.

"I would suggest to you they didn't change it because they just were going forward and said, 'We need to change,'" Backes said. "They changed it because they felt the impact on the university would be detrimental if they didn't."