When North Dakota’s state board of higher education voted to phase out the “Fighting Sioux” last year, that seemed to signal the end of the lengthy battle over the University of North Dakota’s nickname and logo.
Except that it didn’t. Two Fighting Sioux supporters have since launched Save Our Suhaki, a tongue-in-cheek campaign ostensibly aimed at preserving the suhaki, a Russian antelope whose name is pronounced exactly like “Sioux hockey.”
Lest anyone miss the parallel, an editor’s note on the website says, “Suhaki (soo-ha-kee) is often times mistaken for a legendary collegiate ice hockey team located in the Ralph Englestad Arena, Grand Forks, North Dakota, United States of America.”
Steve Ekman, an alumnus who organized the campaign along with fellow North Dakotan Hans Halvorson, called the campaign a “peaceful and poignant protest against the politically correct NCAA.”
“We use humor to deliver our message, but not as an end onto itself,” Mr. Ekman said. “We will succeed because we can.”
State lawmakers also have jumped into the fray by introducing three bills that would override the board’s vote and write the 80-year-old nickname and logo into state law. If that doesn’t work, House Majority Leader Al Carlson says he’s willing to consider adding the Fighting Sioux to the state constitution.
“It’s a North Dakota tradition, and I hate to see it go away,” said Mr. Carlson, a Republican, in a video interview with North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald.
If the NCAA threatens to penalize the university over its use of the nickname, the state attorney general “shall consider filing a federal antitrust investigation against that association.”
Another bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. David Monson, a former House speaker, would prohibit the university from retiring the Fighting Sioux unless each of the state’s two Sioux tribes votes in a tribal referendum to revoke permission to use the nickname and logo.
One potential hurdle: The state constitution already says that the board of education “shall have full authority over the institutions under its control.”
The debate over the Fighting Sioux has waged since the NCAA placed the nickname on a list of “hostile and abusive” Indian mascots in 2005. Schools were ordered to replace their mascots or receive permission from their namesake tribes to continue using them. Any university that refused would face sanctions.
The Spirit Lake Sioux voted 2-to-1 in a tribal referendum in 2009 to retain the Fighting Sioux, but the second Sioux tribe, the Standing Rock, never held a vote. Supporters argued that Standing Rock had sanctioned the name in a ceremony with tribal elders during the 1960s.
The debate seemed to end last year with the board voting to eliminate the Fighting Sioux by April. Ironically enough, the decision came over the objections of a committee of the Spirit Lake Sioux, which had filed a lawsuit to stop the board from revoking the nickname.
Critics of the Fighting Sioux nickname said that eliminating it would be appropriate, but clearly Fighting Sioux fans never got the memo.
“If I thought for one minute that it was derogatory, the Fighting Sioux nickname, I would have never put the bill in,” Mr. Carlson said. “And it’s not just me — there’s been all kinds of North Dakota citizens who have called me and said, ‘Hey, we want the Sioux nickname kept.’”
Given that the NCAA still wields the threat of sanctions, which could include losing the ability to host post-season playoff games, it’s not clear how much pressure the legislature or North Dakota hockey fans can bring to bear.
“The bottom line is clear: The NCAA and the tribes are in the driver’s seat. UND, the board and the legislature are not,” the Herald said in an editorial. “And as long as that’s true, any forcing of the issue by the legislature will be an empty gesture but one that imposes real costs on UND.”
On the other hand, North Dakota fans have shown they can be exceptionally stubborn. By the time of the board’s vote last year, UND was the only school on the NCAA’s list that had failed to resolve its mascot issue.
Dave Christian, a former UND hockey player and gold medalist on the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic team, told fans in an interview on Save Our Suhaki’s Facebook page to keep working for the “survival of Suhaki, not just now but for generations to come.”
“I certainly want to tell everyone to not ever give up hope,” Mr. Christian said. “Suhaki needs our support.”