Defenders of the University of North Dakota’s use of the “Fighting Sioux” as the nickname for its athletic teams (in use since 1930) received a reprieve this week when the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, responding to events on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, granted the University a month-long extension for the use of its current nickname. Now the University has until October 31 to obtain the approval of the North Dakota-based Sioux for its continued use of the name.
In 2005, the NCAA indentified the University of North Dakota as one of eighteen member colleges and universities that used racially offensive Native-American-themed nicknames for their athletic teams. After considerable wrangling with the University, the NCAA ruled that if the University chose to continue the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, mascot, and logo, it would suffer a number of penalties, including a prohibition against hosting NCAA post-season events. At the same time, the University’s efforts to move from Division II to Division I were frustrated by the refusal of the Summit League (an NCAA Division I conference which included North Dakota State and South Dakota State and which had previously shown great interest in adding North Dakota as its twelfth member) to act upon its application until the matter of the nickname was resolved.
The issue was further complicated by the decision to imbed the Fighting Sioux logo into the structure of the University’s lavish Ralph Englestad Arena.
The Englestad Arena, primarily an ice hockey and winter sport facility, was constructed during the controversy, and the pro-Fighting Sioux mascot builders placed the logos in such a way that it would be almost impossible to remove them without significantly damaging the building.
When the University refused to budge on the nickname issue, the NCAA brought suit. In October 2007, the two parties settled the suit with an agreement that the University would change its nickname and logo unless it could secure the approval of both of the state Sioux tribes (the Dakota and the Lakota) for the continued use of the logos for at least thirty more years. This settlement was similar to the one reached in Florida under which the Seminole Tribe authorized the continued use of the Seminole nickname by Florida State University. Under the terms of the settlement, the school had until February 2010 to secure the permission of the two tribes.
The settlement triggered an intense campaign on the part of the University and most white North Dakotans to convince the state’s Native-Americans that it was in their interest to support the continued use of the Fighting Sioux name and mascot. While many seemed to be favorably disposed to the idea anyway, other complained of what they viewed as unfair, and racially tinged, pressure.
The Sioux population of North Dakota primarily resides on two reservations, Standing Rock and Spirit Lake. On April 22, 2009, the Spirit Lake Sioux voted in a non-binding referendum to support the perpetual use of the name by a vote of 774-378. The magnitude of the vote convinced the Spirit Lake Tribal Council to endorse the University’s position.
However, on the Standing Rock Reservation, the tribal leadership voted not to support the continued use. Although there was reportedly strong support for the nickname among the rank and file Standing Rock Sioux, Standing Rock tribal chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder, an outspoken opponent of the mascot and nickname, refused to allow a referendum on the issue.
As racial tensions increased in the face of the resistance of the Standing Rock leadership, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education decided to intervene. Ostensibly concerned about the University’s Summit League application, on May 14, the Board voted 8-0 to order the University to cease using the Fighting Sioux name and logo after October 1 unless it had secured the support of both reservations by that date. (Presumably, if the University chose to resist this directive, it would face the cutoff of state funds.) The effect of the Board edict was to shorten the period in which tribal approval could be obtained by four months.
Although His Horse is Thunder and his supporters showed no signs of backing down, the chairman and several of his allies on the tribal council faced reelection in July 2009. Among those challenging His Horse is Thunder for the position of chairman was Charles Murphy, a Fighting Sioux supporter and a former tribal chairman.
In the July 17 primary Murphy significantly bested His Horse is Thunder, receiving 567 votes to 223 for the incumbent. (In fact, His Horse is Thunder finished only two votes ahead of the third place finisher, Avis Little Eagle.) However, because Murphy did not receive an absolute majority of the votes cast, he and His Horse is Thunder squared off on September 30 in the run-off in a campaign that focused on the mascot and nickname issue. On what appeared to be the next-to-last day for the Fighting Sioux mascot, Murphy soundly defeated his opponent for the tribal chairmanship by a convincing margin of 64 to 36 percent. In addition to Murphy, several new tribal council members were elected, but where each of these stands on the mascot question is not entirely clear. Murphy and his newly elected colleagues do not take office until October 14.
The following day, the magnitude of Murphy’s victory prompted the State Board of Higher Education by a 6-1 vote with one abstention to give the University an additional month to resolve the issue. A further extension will be granted if the Standing Rock Reservation schedules a referendum on the issue, so long as the referendum is held before the end of November.
Although there is no guarantee that the tribal council will agree to a referendum or that it will reverse its position on the nickname even if the results of the referendum are favorable to the University, Murphy’s large majority certainly improves the chances that the Fighting Sioux mascot will survive.
So far, no one has suggested that the University of North Dakota borrow a page from the book of Wisconsin’s Carthage College, one of the eighteen schools on the 2005 NCAA list. Previously known as the Redmen (a synonym for Indians), Carthage changed its nickname to the Red Men (apparently a reference to men that are painted red, or possibly to devils or Communists). If the University of North Dakota ultimately has to give up the Fighting Sioux name, perhaps it should, with a tip of the hat to Johnny Cash, Shel Silverstein, and Title IX, change the name of its athletic teams to the University of North Dakota Fighting Sues. Stranger things have happened.
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