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Fighting Sioux nickname: Harmful, but to whom?

As the wrangling over "Fighting Sioux" churned through homes, workplaces, legislative halls and courtrooms the past two years, leading up to Tuesday's vote, the key point of contention has shifted dramatically.

As the wrangling over "Fighting Sioux" churned through homes, workplaces, legislative halls and courtrooms the past two years, leading up to Tuesday's vote, the key point of contention has shifted dramatically.

Initially, those seeking the name's retirement were people who saw it as a racist stereotype harmful to American Indians. They cited studies by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, research that led to the NCAA's adoption in 2005 of a policy discouraging the use of Indian names and imagery by member schools.

Nickname supporters at UND and beyond vehemently denied that argument and fought it, and the North Dakota Legislature took up the fight early in 2011, declaring by statute that UND teams would continue to be called the Fighting Sioux.

Leaders of 11 Great Plains tribes, meeting in Rapid City, S.D., responded: "We conclude that the use of American Indians for school nicknames, logos and mascots (is) dehumanizing and disrespectful to American Indians and is a racist statement regardless if any state government may pass it as a state law."

But there has been little reference to such arguments in recent months. In fact, the call for retirement now comes largely from people who say they revere the nickname and wish they could keep it, but they fear the potential consequences for UND and its athletics program.


"Like so many other Sioux fans, I'm not happy that we have to retire the Fighting Sioux name," Rick Burgum, chairman of the UND Foundation, said at a May 1 news conference in Fargo. "But the price of keeping the nickname is too great. We must allow UND to move on."

A poll done for Forum Communications last month asked likely voters why they would vote "yes" or "no" on retiring the name. Of those who said they would vote for retirement, 41 percent said it was because keeping it would hurt UND athletics, 33 percent said they just want the issue to end, and 17 percent said they didn't think it was right to mandate use of a nickname by law.

Only 7 percent said they would vote "yes" because they consider the nickname hostile, offensive or abusive.

Chase Iron Hawk, a 2000 UND graduate and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has mixed feelings about the shifting explanations for why the name should go.

"I'm definitely concerned ... the debate has narrowed," he said. "It's no longer about the reasons I opposed it, the objectification of Indians."

But the position taken now by many former nickname supporters "increases the chances for a change," he said, "so I'm not at all mad about the shift."

Erich Longie, a longtime nickname opponent at Spirit Lake despite that tribe's endorsement of it in a 2009 referendum, echoed Iron Hawk.

"It bothers me because it is a racist symbol, and it is an avenue for racism, especially against Indian students who attend UND," Longie said. "But getting rid of it, for whatever reason ... I welcome that."


Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Student Services at UND, said he is troubled "that the only reason people are looking at changing the name" is the potential harm that could come to UND athletics.

Jeanotte emphasized that he was speaking as an individual, not as a UND employee.

"The NCAA policy to do away with Indian-based names was based specifically on the harm they do to American Indian people," he said. "When you look at the research, the national organizations on record against the use of such names, it is pretty clear it is devastating to Indian people."

Many people who now find themselves on opposing sides regarding retirement of the name dismiss that argument, accusing the NCAA of buying into faulty or "advocacy" research and of hypocrisy: Why allow the Florida State Seminoles and Utah Utes but resist the Fighting Sioux despite clear support among the Sioux of North Dakota?

Source of pride, but cost too high

With Burgum at the May 1 news conference was Tim O'Keefe, the Alumni Association leader, who wore the Sioux name as a UND hockey player in the 1970s.

The name has been "a source of pride, honor and excellence for a long time," O'Keefe said. But "it's not about the preference anymore. It's about the price the University of North Dakota will pay if we are forced to keep the nickname."

Those who would continue the fight, at the ballot box and in state and federal courts, have lost other major allies -- including hockey coach Dave Hakstol and former Alumni Association head Earl Strinden -- as the fight dragged on and more people were persuaded that NCAA sanctions could damage the university.


Early last year, Hakstol's broadly distributed email in support of the nickname sparked a huge lobbying effort that helped get the nickname bill passed. But Hakstol now warns that sanction damage to student athletes and programs "is not acceptable."

Strinden's change of position was another heavy blow for the pro-nickname forces. A former Republican leader in the state House, he had nurtured a relationship with Ralph Engelstad, the UND benefactor who gave UND the hockey palace that bears his name and who threatened to tear it down if the nickname was dropped. As a member of the Engelstad Foundation board, Strinden also stoked pro-nickname sentiment on the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux reservations during the three-year period the NCAA gave UND in 2007 to secure approval from the namesake tribes.

But after the state delegation failed last August to persuade NCAA leaders to back off, Strinden reluctantly said it was time to move on. He repeated that sentiment 10 days ago. "We carried this fight as far as we could without doing damage to the University of North Dakota," he wrote in letters to newspapers.

Reed Soderstrom, the Minot attorney who represents the pro-nickname activists at Spirit Lake, laments the defections and says the campaign to retire the name is based on unfounded fears.

"We all love the name, we all know it's honorable and there are just a few who disagree," Soderstrom said. Saving the name "will be the most noble thing we can do for our university."

'A process of colonization'

Iron Hawk, who earned a law degree at Denver University in 2007 and practices law in Bismarck, helped circulate petitions at Standing Rock urging the Tribal Council to stand by its opposition to UND's use of the Sioux name.

He said the Fighting Sioux nickname contributes to "an inaccurate picture of what Indian people are," with consequences for Indians in the legal system, education and politics. "It is a part of the process of colonization of Indian people."


Iron Hawk was president of the UND Indian Association while at UND. He concedes that Indian people themselves are divided on the name.

"I have a bunch of Indian friends who are for the nickname," he said. "We don't even talk about it anymore.

"I know the voters of North Dakota are probably overwhelmingly for the name. But this change in the debate does increase the chances (for dropping it). Educational institutions need to make money. When it comes to affecting the pocketbook, that's when you see change happen."

Longie, however, said he won't be surprised if the pro-nickname side wins on Tuesday. "Maybe I've been in the fight too long, but I think they'll vote to keep the name in spite of what's going to happen with the NCAA," he said.

"You have those who support the nickname and really have no malicious feelings toward Native Americans. I think that's probably the majority. But then you have the extremists who love the logo and will fight to the death for the logo. Those are the racists. The more obsessed a person is with keeping the name and logo, the more racist they are toward Indian people."

Nickname supporters reject such assertions, saying they are the people standing now with the Sioux, hearing their concerns and championing their cause.

Longie scoffs at such claims. "All these people sticking up for us Indians now -- where were they 30 years ago, 20 years ago?" he asked. "The only reason they're 'helping us' now is they see it as a way to keep the logo.

"The last Legislature shot down every bill that would have had a positive impact on Indian nations. The only Indian-related bill they passed was the one on the nickname."


Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

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