- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

Supporters of the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo aren’t giving up without a fight.

Hours after the state Board of Higher Education decided to retire the Fighting Sioux name last Thursday, fans of the nickname emerged in full backlash mode. The outcry includes efforts to cut alumni giving, a petition to reinstate the nickname, protest marches on the university including one Friday night, and even talk of legal action.

The reaction has spilled off campus to the nearby Spirit Lake Sioux reservation, where tribal members last year voted overwhelmingly to retain the nickname and logo.

“Almost all the comments I’m hearing are from people who are sad. They feel deceived,” said Eunice Davidson, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe. “I really do feel the board didn’t listen to the Sioux people.”

Mrs. Davidson said the Committee for Understanding and Respect, a tribal organization, is weighing its options, including another legal challenge. The group had sued to stop the board from reaching a decision on the nickname until Nov. 30, which was the deadline in an agreement between the state and the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

The state Supreme Court ruled against the group April 8, saying it didn’t have standing to bring the lawsuit. Within hours, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, which happened to be holding its monthly meeting that day, moved to implement its May 2009 decision to retire the Fighting Sioux.

Backers of the nickname wanted the board to wait until a decision had been reached by the state’s other Sioux tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe recently submitted more than 1,000 signatures to the tribal council calling for a referendum on the issue.

Fighting Sioux supporters noted that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe could still vote to approve the nickname, which would place the board in an awkward position. Under NCAA rules, universities must retire American Indian mascots unless they receive the permission of the namesake tribe or tribes.

“We’re still holding out hope that the Standing Rock will allow the people to have a vote,” said Mrs. Davidson. “If they did, I really believe most people would support it.”

The Standing Rock Sioux had opposed the nickname for years, but in October the tribe elected a new chairman and board members who appeared more supportive of the Fighting Sioux name. Still, the issue clearly wasn’t a priority for the board; its only action was an April 6 vote to delay discussion on the matter until the state board made its decision.

Given that the state board was waiting for the tribe’s approval, the vote left many Sioux watchers scratching their heads. Even so, there were strong objections to the board’s refusal to give the Standing Rock Sioux more time to consider the issue.

In an April 11 editorial, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald called the board’s decision to act before the Nov. 30 deadline a “mistake.”

“By doing so, the board left itself open to the charge that it doesn’t care what Indian people think — exactly the claim nickname opponents had made in the decades leading up to the settlement,” said the editorial. “The board should have let the process at Standing Rock play out.”

The only apparent reason for the rush was that the university wants to join the Division I Summit League, but league officials won’t consider an application until the nickname issue is resolved. In a Friday press conference, however, the university’s athletic director and four coaches said they were disappointed by the board’s move.

“We got away from what it was supposed to be about, and it was supposed to be about the wishes of the Native American people in North Dakota,” said Dave Hakstol, the men’s hockey coach. “Somewhere along the way, we got off track, and it seems a bit of maybe political correctness and a smaller minority have been heard on this subject.”

Athletic Director Brian Faison agreed that the move would result in a drop in alumni support for the sports programs, at least in the short term.

“There’s no question there’s going to be pushback,” said Mr. Faison. “This is a very emotional issue for a lot of our fans. To what extent that will be, we don’t know.”

Alumni already have set up a Facebook page calling for an end to donations until the Fighting Sioux name is reinstated. Others are circulating a petition on Facebook calling for the return of the nickname. Meanwhile, in another Facebook-driven effort, hundreds of protesters are expected to march on the university Friday night.

Alumni Association Executive Vice President Tim O’Keefe posted a message on the group’s Web site as soon as the decision was reached asking alumni “to come together for the benefit of the university, for our students, and for our student-athletes.”

The state board voted in May 2009 to retire the nickname, but then granted a series of extensions to take into account tribal elections. The board’s April 8 decision merely implemented the original vote, said university spokesman Peter Johnson.

He said e-mails and phone calls were running about 4 to 1 against the retirement of the Fighting Sioux name.

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