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Film about UND's retired Fighting Sioux nickname nears completion

Jake Arel, 13, skates the Fighting Sioux flag out to center ice for the last time in October 2011 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. photo by Eric Hylden

A documentary film detailing the life of UND's former Fighting Sioux logo and nickname is coming to a wrap after years in the making.

Filmmaker Matt Fern, who works by day at his Bismarck video editing company The Creative Treatment, will screen through mid-June the documentary—titled "Unauthorized: The Story of the Fighting Sioux"—for private audiences in Grand Forks, Minot and Fargo. The initial run of screenings will be limited to those who donated to the film's production through a 2015 crowdfunding campaign hosted on the website Kickstarter.

Fern said the early showings are intended as a test run to determine what, if any, final editing decisions need to be made before the documentary is submitted to film festivals.

"We want to play the film in front of large audiences who aren't family and friends and who aren't going to just say that it's great," he said, adding he hopes to have the documentary in as many festivals as possible by the end of the year. "Hopefully we can get some buzz, some attention and get a distribution deal, as these festivals are usually part of a pipeline in place to get films in theaters."

The filming effort pulled together more than 40 interviews and 50 hours of footage devoted to the story of the Fighting Sioux, the old nickname attached to UND athletics. The university's sports teams are currently known as the Fighting Hawks.

UND adopted the Native-themed nickname in the 1930s and subsequently adopted Native American imagery, including a Fighting Sioux Indian head logo. The NCAA moved in 2005 to bar that logo as part of a wider decision to sanction schools that made use of tribal motifs in ways the organization deemed hostile or abusive. The nickname as a whole was retired in 2012 after a prolonged, heated battle.

The Fighting Hawk name was selected in 2015 through a statewide voting process.

Fern began conducting interviews for the film in 2013 when opinions were running strong, though he says his team "definitely went in without an agenda."

They finished filming last July with the unveiling of the newly designed Fighting Hawks logo.

"That's the last part we needed to document to capture the beginning, middle and end," Fern said. "We were hoping to be done a lot sooner, but that process went on a lot longer, so we were just kind of waiting for the ending."

In late 2015, before shooting wrapped, Fern launched a campaign on digital crowdfunding website Kickstarter with a goal of raising $50,000. Much of the filming had been finished by that point but he funding was intended to cover a variety of costs associated with finishing and releasing the movie, such as music rights, post production editing and licensing fees.

Fern also earmarked 5 percent of the donations for the Lakota Language Nest program, an immersive language instruction school for children on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.

Now, with the end finally in sight, Fern sees the festival circuit as the best route to land a production deal for the film to bring it fully to market. He said he'll be shooting for the biggest events he can, including the internationally renowned Sundance and Toronto film festivals.

Even if no distribution offers come through, Fern says he would still try to release the film independently. Either way, he says it'll hopefully land in local theaters by 2018, some five years after he began shooting interviews.

"It feels incredible to be in the home stretch," he said. "I have a 3-year-old son, so I've been working on this film longer than he's been alive. I'm really excited to get it out there, tell this story, and I can't wait for people to see it."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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