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Fighting Sioux nickname opponents protest at Memorial Union

Opponents of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname brought to campus Wednesday morning one of the big guns in the battle against American Indian nicknames to help rally the base.

UND protest
Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement and a leader in protests nationwide against such nicknames, gestures to the crowd Wednesday at UND. Photo by John Stennes.

Opponents of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname brought to campus Wednesday morning one of the big guns in the battle against American Indian nicknames to help rally the base.

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement and a leader in protests nationwide against such nicknames, inspired the crowd with stories of protests past.

"We are winning," he said. Schools and universities around the country have dropped their nicknames, he said, including ones he thought would never relent, such as the erstwhile Salmon, Idaho, "Fighting Savages."

Still on his list are the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins and, naturally, the Fighting Sioux.

Bellecourt also showed some of the fire he's known for when he sprinkled tobacco on the ground and offered prayers for "those that are scholastically retarded about us and our culture."

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The Herald counted about 75 rally participants, including organizers and speakers. At a panel discussion that followed, there were seven Indian students in attendance. UND has a student population that includes more than 400 Indians, the largest among the state's non-tribal

colleges and universities.

Bellecourt came at the request of UND's Indian students that oppose the nickname and fears that, today, the State Board of Higher Education will extend the deadline for the university to win tribal support for the nickname.

The Oct. 1 deadline was one the state board imposed on itself. The actual deadline imposed by the settlement with the NCAA, which considers Indian nicknames derogatory, is February 2010.

Who's insulted

One of the state's two Sioux tribes, Spirit Lake, already has issued a resolution offering UND "perpetual" use of the nickname after a referendum in which 67 percent of tribal members supported the nickname. Nickname supporters at the other tribe, Standing Rock, are agitating for a referendum of their own and predict that the results would be similar.

In fact, a counter-protester was seen with a sign that said "Democracy above all."

To that, Spirit Lake nickname opponent Erich Longie, replied, using the Dakota word for whites: "We Native Americans experienced the wasichu democracy and it killed a lot of us. ... We Native Americans experienced the wasichu democracy, and we have no civil rights at all."

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Amber Annis, one of the rally organizers, said this is not an issue for voters on just two reservations, but an issue that affects all Indian students, no matter their tribe. Why, she asked, do the voices of people living on the reservation matter more than that of students forced to deal with the controversy everyday?

"It is the Indian people on campus, near campus and in this community who receive the brunt of the insults," she said.

But that really depends on who you ask.

Some who voted for the Spirit Lake referendum in April said at the time that they are UND alumni or had friends or relatives who are. They didn't feel disrespected by the nickname, they said. Many expressed pride, sporting Fighting Sioux sweatshirts or jerseys.

Celeste Melander, a UND student from Standing Rock, called the Herald after hearing about the protest and said she didn't feel disrespected, either. Growing up on the reservation, she said, she knows what racism is. Some incidents that nickname opponents claim are racially motivated, she said, are just kids misbehaving and not race hate.

There's little agreement whether Sioux is even a derogatory word for the peoples who call themselves Dakota, Lakota and Nakota.

Dave Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and a UND alumnus, said "Sioux" was a name imposed on his people by white Europeans.

Yet, at Standing Rock, when given a chance to change the tribe's official name from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to Standing Rock Oyate, voters chose to keep the name.

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Finger-pointing

But there's another side argument, and that involves accusations that active nickname supporters are sell-outs.

"They use our own people against us," Gipp said. "It's called the Roman 'divide-and-conquer.' It's something the Romans used to control their empire."

"They," in this context, means the Ralph Engelstad Arena, which nickname opponents believe has a large financial influence over the reservations.

It's no secret that Engelstad, a now deceased Las Vegas casino tycoon, had a lot of money, and that he once threatened to let the $100 million hockey arena that he gave the campus rot if the nickname were taken away.

"No matter how much he spends, turning Indian against Indian, we will win," Bellecourt said. "The truth is the most powerful thing in the world! The truth will set you free!" he shouted to applause.

But there has never been any proof that Ralph Engelstad Arena is dumping money into the nickname battle. The arena does have an operative on its payroll who has offered logistical support for nickname supporters on the reservation. But it has denied funding any campaign for the nickname, and supporters say they aren't being paid.

That's not good enough for Gipp. Nickname opponents having not found any proof, he demanded that the news media and state officials investigate.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: UND NICKNAME
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