North Dakota House says UND must keep Fighting Sioux name

By Dale Wetzel
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) March 2011

Setting up a potential clash with the NCAA, the North Dakota House approved a bill that requires the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux athletics nickname.

The university has been preparing to drop the nickname and its American Indian head logo this summer as part of a negotiated lawsuit settlement with the NCAA, which considers both to be hostile and abusive to American Indians.

House members voted 65-28 to approve legislation that requires UND to keep the nickname and logo, and directs Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to consider an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA if any penalties result.

The bill now goes to the North Dakota Senate for its review. An NCAA spokeswoman, Gail Dent, declined to comment on the House vote.

Supporters of the measure argued that North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education, in deciding to discard the nickname and logo, ignored strong public sentiment in favor of both. Opponents of the nickname and logo say they are racist and demeaning.

“Overwhelmingly, Native Americans and regular North Dakota citizens ... they said, we don’t want the name to go away,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader. “Are we supposed to ignore it, and say, we don’t have the authority to do that?”

Separately, representatives voted down two related bills that required UND to keep the nickname unless the members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe voted to revoke permission for using it. Neither bill got more than eight votes in favor.

The tribe’s governing council has approved several resolutions opposing the nickname, but it has never been the subject of a reservation vote. North Dakota’s other major Sioux tribe, the Spirit Lake Sioux, endorsed the nickname and logo in an April 2009 referendum.

“If we keep the nickname, you get respect. If you change, you get ridicule,” said Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England. “A new nickname will make you the laughingstock of the conference, because you will have no will to stick to your tradition.”

Opponents of Carlson’s proposal said it would ignore years of review of the issue by the Board of Higher Education and UND that resulted in the decision to discard the nickname and logo.

“We will have decided that after five years of work on the part of the University of North Dakota’s faculty, their staff, their students ...the higher education board and the attorney general, to name some – they’re all wrong. They didn’t get it,” said Rep. Phillip Mueller, D-Valley City.

The NCAA declared the American Indian nicknames of more than a dozen colleges, including UND, to be “hostile and abusive” in 2005.

The state sued, and the two sides settled out of court in October 2007, with UND agreeing to retire the nickname if the school could not get the consent of the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes to continue using it. If UND keeps the Fighting Sioux nickname, the school may be barred from hosting NCAA postseason tournaments.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, said the “dominant feeling” at UND was that “we do not want two more years of legal battles. We do not want a divided campus.”

“I certainly wish we could keep the name and logo. They are strong and meaningful,” Glassheim continued. “But we cannot keep the name and logo without dooming the University of North Dakota to never-ending controversy.”