There’s a twist on the Indian mascot story unfolding now in North Dakota. This week, a group of Sioux Indians are taking the state board of education to court over the Fighting Sioux, the nickname and logo of the University of North Dakota.
Only in this case, members of the Sioux nation aren’t suing to get rid of the nickname. They’re fighting to keep it.
"Whenever I hear ‘Fighting Sioux,’ I’ve always been proud of it," said Eunice Davidson, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe. "People who say they don’t like it—I don’t understand that. It seems to me to be a real positive thing."
Not everyone is as devoted to the name as Davidson. In fact, some North Dakotans, starting with members of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, are just plain sick of it. The debate over the nickname and logo has dragged on for five years, and there’s a growing consensus among education officials that it’s time to drop the Fighting Sioux and move on.
It’s doubtful that National College Athletic Association officials foresaw this outcome when they announced their Indian mascot ruling in 2005. The NCAA issued a list of 19 universities deemed as having "hostile or abusive" Indian mascots and ordered them to change the nicknames or risk their eligibility for post-season play.
Most of the listed universities agreed to jettison the nicknames, but an exception was made for any institution that won the permission of the namesake tribe. The University of Florida, for example, was able to keep its nickname after receiving the blessing of the Seminoles.
Five years after the NCAA’s ruling, the University of North Dakota remains the last holdout. An agreement between the NCAA and the state gives the university until November 30, 2010, to reach a decision on whether to retain the Fighting Sioux. The fear is that the university won’t wait until then.
To keep the nickname, the university would need permission of two Sioux tribes, the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux. In October, the Spirit Lake Sioux tribal council agreed to permit the nickname’s use after 67% of the tribe voted to support it.
The Standing Rock Sioux are a different story. Under the leadership of tribal chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a staunch foe of the nickname, the council refused to sanction the Fighting Sioux. In September, however, the tribe elected a new chairman, Charles Murphy, who has supported the nickname’s use.
The problem is, Murphy clearly doesn’t want to be rushed. The tribal council hasn’t taken up the matter since his election, and the state board of higher education is getting antsy. UND wants to join the Division I Summit League—the university already plays Division I Hockey as part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association—but Summit officials won’t allow it until the university resolves the nickname issue.
A group of Spirit Lake Sioux won a temporary restraining order to stop the board from retiring the nickname in November. The same group, under the name the Committee for Understanding and Respect, then filed a lawsuit to seeking to prevent the board from acting until the Nov. 30 deadline. They lost at the district court level, but the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument Tuesday, March 23.
State board members have argued that even if the Standing Rock gives its permission, the nickname issue will never die. The nickname’s opponents, including faculty, editorial boards and the American Indian Movement, will continue to challenge the Fighting Sioux no matter what the tribes do.
"Even if we get an agreement with Standing Rock, that is not going to change the divisive nature of this logo and that is a bigger issue with respect for individuals, for harmony in the state," said state board member Mike Haugen in the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.
What the Sioux don’t understand is why their views on the logo are taking a back seat to those of people who aren’t even Sioux. Tribal members want the agreement enforced, and the agreement gives them until Nov. 30.
"To me, they’re wanting to jump the gun," said Archie Fool Bear, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux and supporter of the nickname. "Last August, they [board members] started making comments to the media saying, ‘October is the deadline, we’re going to end it.’"
If the Standing Rock Sioux really wanted to keep the nickname, the argument goes, the tribal council would have voted by now. According to Fool Bear, however, these matters take time.
"The judge said that we have until November 2010," said Fool Bear. "We spent the whole first year exploring the issue and talking about it. We’re doing something. We’re creating a covenant over the issue."
Fool Bear is now leading a petition drive to place the issue on a tribal referendum ballot. He believes the nickname has enough support to win a popular vote of the tribe and then the council’s approval. Depending on the outcome of the case, however, the board may retire the nickname before the tribe can act.
In the world of college hockey, the UND Fighting Sioux is a perennial power and revered program. Its jerseys featuring the silhouette of a proud Sioux warrior are regular bestsellers. Few people have ever heard of two small tribes in North Dakota, but everyone knows the Fighting Sioux. Without it, many Sioux fear the name will be relegated to the history books. For Davidson, being forgotten is the ultimate discrimination.
"Sometimes I feel we should go after the NCAA," said Davidson. "I feel very discriminated against by them because they didn’t even talk to us. They just made a deal with the board of education."