- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

The most prominent defenders of the University of North Dakota’s right to call its teams the Fighting Sioux are neither alumni nor hockey fans.

They’re Sioux.

A group of Spirit Lake Sioux won a temporary restraining order last week to stop the North Dakota University System from retiring the nickname and logo, one of the last in the country associated with an American Indian tribe. A hearing for a preliminary injunction is slated for Dec. 9 in Ramsey County District Court in Devils Lake, N.D.

Most such university team names have been abandoned in the face of criticism that they were offensive or derogatory, but that view isn’t the only one in Indian country. Some tribal members take pride in their association with the Fighting Sioux and worry that eliminating the moniker “will cause isolation and a diminishing of public interest, knowledge and respect for Sioux history,” according to the complaint.

“There are more members of the Sioux tribe that support this than oppose it,” said Frank Blackcloud, a Spirit Lake Sioux and member of the tribe’s Committee for Understanding and Respect, which brought the complaint.

The committee’s decision to weigh in on the Fighting Sioux nickname is the latest - and most ironic - twist in a decades-old debate over the university’s nickname and logo.

While Spirit Lake Sioux members are fighting to save the name, they’re meeting resistance from largely nonnative groups like the faculty Senate, the College Anti-Racism Team and even the state Board of Higher Education.

Board President Richie Smith, who has come out in favor of retiring the logo and nickname, called the judge’s decision to issue the restraining order “bizarre.”

All this has Patrick Morley scratching his head.

“It’s definitely a turnaround,” said Mr. Morley, a Grand Forks, N.D., lawyer representing the Committee on Understanding and Respect.

“I don’t think most people realize the Fighting Sioux is actually a source of pride to a majority of those in the tribe. You can see Fighting Sioux jerseys everywhere when you go on the reservation.”

Still, pressure to eliminate the Fighting Sioux is intensifying - and not just from those who find the nickname offensive. The university, which recently moved to Division I athletics, wants to join the Summit League athletic conference, but league officials have said the nickname dispute must be resolved first.

The legal debate centers on the deadline for resolving the nickname issue.

The University of North Dakota remains the last holdout among 19 schools identified as having “hostile and abusive” mascots by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2005 and 2006. The other universities have either retired their Indian mascots or kept them after securing the approval of their namesake tribes.

Under a settlement reached with the state of North Dakota, the NCAA agreed to give the university until Nov. 30, 2010, to settle the matter. But the state board later passed a resolution moving up the deadline to Oct. 1, 2009, which was later extended to Oct. 31.

The Spirit Lake Sioux tribal council approved the use of the Fighting Sioux in September, after a tribal referendum election in April in which 67 percent of voters supported the university’s use of the nickname and logo. To win NCAA approval, however, the university needs the blessing of a second tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux.

That tribe’s leadership had long opposed the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, but in September, the Standing Rock elected a new chairman, Charles Murphy, who has previously supported the moniker.

At a state board meeting Thursday, North Dakota University System Chancellor Bill Goetz said Mr. Murphy had told him that no referendum vote is imminent. The previous council passed a moratorium on a referendum vote, which is still in effect.

Mr. Murphy also said the issue remains contentious on the tribal council and reservation at large, Mr. Goetz said.

Even so, Mr. Blackcloud said he was confident that the Standing Rock would ultimately give its approval for the nickname, but that it’s likely the tribal council doesn’t want to be hurried.

“Tribal leaders like to do things in their own time,” Mr. Blackcloud said. “They don’t like people on the outside telling then what they have to do or when they have to do it.”

His committee wants the court to move the deadline to resolve the dispute back to Nov. 30, 2010, the date set by the agreement with the NCAA, which would presumably give the Standing Rock Sioux sufficient time to come to a decision.

“For someone to try to impose a deadline on us that wasn’t part of the original agreement is wrong,” Mr. Blackcloud said. “The Sioux name is ours.”

Critics counter that the Spirit Lake Sioux have no legal standing because the university, not the tribes, owns the nickname and logo.

“It’s hard to imagine so foggy a ruling can survive clear-eyed legal scrutiny,” the Fargo (N.D.) Forum editorialized.

The wait-and-see approach may be gaining steam. Mr. Blackcloud’s group won an unexpected vote of confidence Sunday when the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which has criticized the nickname and logo in the past, came out in favor of holding to the original deadline.

“What’s the rush?” said the editorial. “After generations of being called the Fighting Sioux and several decades of controversy, UND now has a chance to resolve the issue honorably and with full and considered input from the tribes. That’s worth a short - in historic terms - wait.”

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