GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a surprisingly lopsided vote of 774-378, members of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe voted this week to support the University of North Dakota’s continued use of the Fighting Sioux nickname for its athletic teams.
Under terms of a legal settlement negotiated in October 2007 with the NCAA, the university has until next year to win approval from the two in-state namesake tribes for its use of the nickname and stylized Indian head logo.
Failing that, UND must drop the nickname and logo, which the NCAA has characterized as contributing to a “hostile and abusive” environment, or face NCAA sanctions.
UND has long maintained that it treats the name and logo with respect and that it has the support of Sioux (or Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) people. Logo defenders cheered the Spirit Lake plebiscite as proof of that.
But the long-running logo dispute is nowhere near resolution.
“This is not over,” Spirit Lake nickname opponent Erich Longie told the Grand Forks Herald after official referendum results were announced Wednesday. “Not by a long shot.”
Opponents say they were outspent
Longie and other opponents, who complain they were outspent by logo supporters and didn’t have time to make their case against it, say they will work to persuade the new tribal council — elections are next month — to set aside the referendum and withhold the tribe’s permission. Failing that, they may seek a second referendum.
UND also needs to gain the approval of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, where the tribal council is on record opposing the continued use of the logo and nickname and so far has refused to schedule a referendum. Tribal officials, including Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, an outspoken logo critic, argue that logo supporters pushing for a membership vote are intruding on tribal sovereignty.
David Gipp, a UND graduate who is president of a Bismarck technical college that serves primarily Sioux and Chippewa students, warned of that when the NCAA settlement was announced in October 2007.
“Allowing a three-year period to influence the tribes leaves the door open for UND and its agents to continue their meddling in the social and political affairs of tribal nations, causing untold damage in the lives of good people and families who only wish to have their ways and heritage respected,” Gipp said then.
Dakota people and tribes beyond North Dakota have expressed opposition to the continued use of the logo and believe their voices should count.
Some at Standing Rock seek referendum
Tribal council elections also are scheduled at Standing Rock next month, and logo supporters there say they intend to circulate petitions seeking a referendum.
Many people, including many who identify themselves as nickname supporters, have said in recent months that they are weary of the dispute and just want the matter settled. So do UND officials. The Summit League, which UND wants to join as it moves into the NCAA’s Division 1-A, has indicated it wants the nickname controversy resolved before it decides on the school’s application.
Students at St. Cloud State have protested against the nickname when the Sioux hockey team has played the Huskies, and the University of Minnesota said in 2007 it would not schedule athletic contests with UND (except for men’s and women’s hockey) because of the nickname.
UND officials have bitterly contested the “hostile and abusive” characterization of the atmosphere on campus, noting that the school has one of the nation’s largest American Indian enrollments and dozens of university programs — in law, medicine and other fields — for Indian students.
Committee to investigate possibility of settlement
The State Board of Higher Education has appointed a committee, with members from UND, the two tribes and other interests, to investigate whether the university and tribes can work out a settlement of the issue within the time mandated by the NCAA. That committee will meet with Spirit Lake tribal members after the May tribal council elections.
UND athletic teams, once known as the Flickertails, became the Sioux in the 1930s when fans decided they wanted a mascot with more stature than a rodent. (Sorry, Minnesota.) But with the rise of American Indian activism and pride in the 1960s came protests against Indian-themed logos, which led to their abandonment at hundreds of colleges and universities — and high schools, including Grand Forks Central, which dropped its “Redskins” nickname about 20 years ago.
The situation has been complicated at UND by the late Ralph Engelstad’s gift of a $200 million hockey arena, which has been home to the Fighting Sioux — and not shy about saying so, in hundreds of inlaid Sioux logos throughout the ice palace — since it was opened with a North Dakota-Minnesota hockey series in October 2001.
Engelstad, a Thief River Falls, Minn., native and onetime UND hockey goalie who made it big as a Las Vegas casino owner, died in 2002. But in 2000, he threatened to pull the plug on the then-unfinished arena when it appeared the university was considering dropping the logo. The state board responded by voting to stand by the nickname, and construction went on.