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Spirit Lake's Eunice Davidson remains optimistic about saving the nickname

DEVILS LAKE -- Eunice Davidson would like to go to college and study history, to learn more about the people who came before and shaped the woman she has become.

Eunice Davidson
Eunice Davidson's great great great great grandfather, Chief Little Fish, was the original leader of the Spirit Lake Nation tribe. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

DEVILS LAKE -- Eunice Davidson would like to go to college and study history, to learn more about the people who came before and shaped the woman she has become.

As a contributor to a Sioux display at the Lake Region Heritage Center, and director of the museum from 2008 to 2011, she has spent much time in the company of her ancestors.

"I would sit up here and read," she said, savoring the memory.

Children come to visit, and Davidson shows them the tools and toys and artwork of the Dakota people of more than a century ago. She shows them leather moccasins and vests, colorfully decorated.

"Where did they get the beads?" the children ask. "Did they come from China?" And Davidson walks to another old display case of glass and burnished wood to show porcupine quills and explain the magic of natural dyes.


When there were no visitors, she read. She read about her tribe's early days and about Tiowaste, or Good House, a Dakota chief who was also called Little Fish.

He had relocated to the area around Fort Totten in 1867 following the Dakota War in Minnesota, helping to establish what would become the Spirit Lake Nation. In the 1890s and early in the 20th century, Little Fish led the annual parade of Dakota Indians into Devils Lake for Chautauqua events, where he would speak.

"He was a good orator," Davidson said.

And he was her great-great-great-great grandfather.

Confused identity

Davidson's family had a pawn shop on the reservation, and over time a collection had grown: ceremonial pipes, drums, buffalo skulls, old photographs and drawn portraits of Sitting Bull, dresses for jingle and fancy dances. The parting with such treasures was often sad, but "people would need money" in hard times, she said. "Sometimes they would come in and buy it back."

The collection went years ago to the museum in Devils Lake, and contributors have added Ojibwe (Chippewa) items as well as Dakota (Sioux).

"You can distinguish the work of the two tribes by the beadwork," Davidson said, showing some of the colorful patterns on display. "The Chippewa beaded in floral arrangements and leaves, whereas the Sioux were more geometric patterns."


Another case holds photographs of Little Fish and the wooden cane and moccasins he favored in his last years.

"Finding out who he was -- that was really something for me."

Born in Fargo in 1951, as her parents were returning from Chicago, she was raised on the reservation by foster parents, a Dakota-Chippewa man and a woman who was French Canadian, Cree and Chippewa. "It was a good home with a lot of love," she said, but she never learned the Dakota language and was eager to leave the reservation.

"My identity was really mixed up for a time," she said. "I never had the nurturing for being a Dakota Sioux. I was sometimes ashamed to be an Indian. I had good people in my life who gave me pride, but being Indian didn't feel good to me because of the stereotypes."

She knew little of her family background until she started digging in 2006, just as the struggle erupted between UND and the NCAA, which had adopted a policy in 2005 discouraging the use of American Indian names and imagery by member schools. She traveled to archives in Washington, D.C., and Bismarck, and with a detailed family tree provided by a relative she set about learning who those people were.

She learned that Little Fish, who died in 1919 at the age of 92, was a proud and handsome leader who had talked to government leaders in Washington as well as to neighbors at the Devils Lake Chautauquas.

"Even though I never knew them, I felt close to them," she said.

'I want to play!'


She married David Davidson in 1968. He is of Norwegian descent but now boasts that he is "100 percent Siouwegian." Their son, David Jr., 42, is a Benson County commissioner and teacher at Four Winds School in Fort Totten. They also have a daughter, Lisa Kimmerly, who lives with her family in St. Michael, on the reservation.

When Davy was 6 or 7 years old, the family watched a hockey game, and the boy declared, "I want to play hockey. I want to play for the Sioux!"

"It was quite costly for us for a while, the skates and equipment," Eunice said. "He started playing in the third grade, and without hockey I don't think he would have graduated. He dreamed of playing for the Sioux, and while it didn't work out for him, that dream kept him on the right road."

His son, Grant, also chose hockey.

"Davy took him to the rink when he was 5 years old, and he was on the ice all the time," Eunice said. "He was small, but he was fast. It was fun to watch him."

Grant was good enough to play for the Dakota Predators, a traveling team that competed in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada. An elder had given him the Indian name Nagiskata, Spirit Play, and like his father he dreamed of playing for UND. He hoped to get into a skating clinic to develop his skills. But Grant was killed in a vehicle accident last August. He was 19.

The Davidsons mourned their grandson, then threw themselves back into the fight to preserve the Fighting Sioux nickname. In 2008, they surveyed 1,200 people at Spirit Lake, asking how they felt about the nickname.

"Only about 50 said no," Eunice said.


The people vote

That led to the 2009 referendum, in which Spirit Lake voters endorsed UND's use of the Sioux name by a two-to-one margin.

Davidson contacted Archie Fool Bear and others at Standing Rock who favored keeping the name. "It wasn't our business what they do, but we asked what we could do to help."

Fool Bear and allies pressed Standing Rock's Tribal Council for a vote, but the council stood by its longstanding opposition. The failure to secure Standing Rock's blessing, a requirement of the 2007 legal settlement between UND and the NCAA, led officials to order the nickname's retirement.

Some at Spirit Lake who oppose it insist that it demeans rather than honors the Sioux people, that it fuels stereotypes.

"I don't know why they say that," Davidson said. "I don't think it's offensive. I wouldn't put myself out there like this if I thought it was.

"I get a lot of phone calls and emails from people who say, 'Don't give up!' I see more people who are for it than against it. I have people who voted against it who say they've changed their minds."

Now she circulates petitions, monitors state and federal lawsuits and speaks at news briefings, urging supporters not to tire and quit.


"I'm optimistic," she says, smiling. "I'm a Fighting Sioux."

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

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