- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fans of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux will not be watching pucks or game scores Thursday night; instead, they’ll be eyeballing the returns in a local Sioux tribe’s election.

The future of the mascot, which has represented the University of North Dakota since 1930 and is the last of 18 college Indian nicknames to have its fate resolved, could hinge on the outcome of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal election.

Running for re-election as tribal chairman is Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a staunch foe of the university’s use of the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname. His challenger is Charles Murphy, a tribal council member who has voted in favor of permitting the moniker’s use.

In the July 15 primary election, Mr. Murphy collected more than twice as many votes as the incumbent. Even if Mr. Murphy is elected, there’s no guarantee the tribal council will reverse its earlier decision opposing the university’s continued use of the Fighting Sioux. But the election does represent an unexpected opportunity for supporters of the long-standing mascot in a battle that until recently appeared all but lost.

The University of North Dakota is the last holdout among the 18 schools whose Indian mascots were deemed “hostile and abusive” by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2005. Those universities were told to jettison their logos and nicknames or find themselves banned from hosting postseason events or using the mascot at postseason tournaments.

The only exceptions were granted to universities that received permission to keep their mascots from their namesake tribes. Florida State University, for example, was allowed to continue its use of the Seminoles after receiving the blessing of the local Seminole council.

The state of North Dakota challenged the NCAA’s directive in court, but in a 2007 settlement, the state agreed to drop the mascot by November 2010 unless both the Spirit Lake Sioux and the Standing Rock Sioux tribes agreed to give it their support for the next 30 years.

The Spirit Lake Sioux council passed a resolution two weeks ago giving its seal of approval after an April referendum found that 67 percent of the tribe’s voters backed the nickname and logo. The Standing Rock Sioux has never held a popular vote on the issue.

“One thing Ron His Horse Is Thunder has said is that the Constitution of the Standing Rock doesn’t allow for a referendum,” university spokesman Peter Johnson said. “But the tribal council could still vote for the resolution.”

The election for chairman comes not a moment too soon for Fighting Sioux fans. The North Dakota Board of Higher Education was scheduled Thursday to begin the process of retiring the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

In light of Thursday’s election, however, the board is considering extending the deadline for tribal approval by another two weeks. The board is slated to meet by teleconference Thursday to vote on the extension.

The American Indian Movement has responded by scheduling a rally Wednesday to protest the proposed extension. The on-campus protest will feature two veterans of the movement’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., as well as Spirit Lake nickname foe Erich Longie, according to a press release.

The battle over the Fighting Sioux predates the NCAA’s directive. Opponents have argued for years that Indian mascots are degrading and humiliating to Indian tribes and nations, while backers of the nicknames say they’re intended in most cases to honor the traditions and legacies of Indian warriors.

Losing the moniker would come at a cost for the university. The Fighting Sioux is one of the most recognizable mascots in the world of NCAA hockey, with the university’s team a perennial power, and its Sioux jerseys being bestsellers both nationally and regionally.

North Dakota alumnus Ralph Engelstad, who donated $110 million to build the school’s hockey arena, strongly supported keeping the Fighting Sioux and even embedded thousands of Indian logos within the arena to make it more difficult to change the name.

University President Robert O. Kelley Jr. issued a statement Tuesday urging the community to bear in mind the school’s larger purpose in the days before the state board’s decision.

“[W]e must continue to keep our eyes on the ball: the university’s core mission,” Mr. Kelley said. “It is important not to lose sight of what is important in the long run for the education of our students and for working toward even greater quality for our many programs.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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