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Standing Rock's nickname supporters speak out

FORT YATES, N.D. - Diane Gates' father, Edward Loon, was part of a delegation from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that formally gave UND the right to use its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo in 1969 and made President George Starcher an hono...

FORT YATES, N.D. - Diane Gates' father, Edward Loon, was part of a delegation from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that formally gave UND the right to use its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo in 1969 and made President George Starcher an honorary Yankton chief.

Now, 38 years and several Standing Rock resolutions opposing the nickname later, UND has agreed to give up that nickname and logo if it cannot win approval from tribal councils at Standing Rock and Spirit Lake, the state's other Sioux reservation.

Part of a larger settlement

That agreement is part of a larger settlement the university signed in late September, ending a yearlong legal battle with the NCAA. And the approval likely will be difficult to come by.

Tribal Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder and other Standing Rock leaders denounced the nickname in no uncertain terms about two weeks ago on UND campus, and a quorum of the Standing Rock council voted last month to renew the council's official opposition to the nickname.


But Gates says retiring the nickname would be disrespectful to her father, who willingly gave the name to UND, and won't solve more important problems on the reservation, including a lack of homes with running water and poor health care for the elderly.

"I don't see it as offensive to anyone," Gates said of the nickname. "I think it was given out of respect. Sioux people, years ago, worked as a team, they cooperated . . . they should respect what my father did . . . it's about the bravery to compete, to succeed, to encourage our youth to go to school."

Thelma Shell Track, a former tribal judge, said she supports the nickname because she believes it represents something honorable about her people.

"We are Fighting Sioux in real life, from way back when," she said. "We're alive now today because we were fighting way back when. We've had to fight for everything we've got."

Gates and Shell Track were among 11 enrolled Standing Rock members interviewed by the Herald during two evenings this week at the reservation's Prairie Knights Casino in Fort Yates.

The interviews were arranged by Sam Dupris, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River, S.D., Sioux Tribe, who is advocating for the nickname on the Standing Rock reservation as a paid envoy for the privately-owned Ralph Engelstad Arena, which hosts UND hockey games.

The interviews were not organized as a debate. No nickname opponents were invited, and none of the people interviewed serves on the reservation's 17-member tribal council. Most of those interviewed were given a meal and gas money, paid by the REA through Dupris.

Anti-anti nickname


While all of those interviewed supported UND's continued use of its nickname, most agreed they were driven more by opposition to tribal council members, who they believe spend too much time denouncing the nickname and too little time addressing social welfare issues on the reservation.

"The logo isn't heating my house," said Mary Louise Defender Wilson, who is in her 80s and said she often can't get adequate assistance to fill her propane tank and can't afford to fill it on her own.

"(The logo) is not something we feel strongly about," she said, "so why are our leaders spending so much time on it. They should be doing something to make our lives better at home. They should be Fighting Sioux and fight for better services for us."

Defender Wilson's friend Patti Kelly said: "ninety-nine percent of the people don't care about the logo because survival is the name of the game. I have friends without running water and with frozen pipes."

Ricky Red Eagle, a Vietnam War veteran, said he was offended that tribal leaders held a press conference at UND about the nickname issue rather than speaking to their constituencies on the reservation.

"It's so petty," he said. "It's the pettiest thing this tribe has ever had to fight. There are deeper issues here that we need to work on. The issues aren't over there (in Grand Forks) . . . Respectable men gave them that name. Who are these guys to take it away."

Several people interviewed also said they worried about a backlash against the tribe that could follow the nickname's retirement.

Nickname supporters, they said, could boycott the reservation's casinos, effectively cutting funding for tribal programs. Or deteriorating race relations could hurt American Indians living in Grand Forks, Bismarck and other North Dakota cities.


Let the

people decide

One common theme of the interviews was that the enrolled members of the reservation, not the tribal council, should decide the nickname's fate.

Some people advocated a reservation-wide referendum, following debates in every district between nickname supporters and opponents. Others thought it would be sufficient to take a popular vote at meetings of the governing councils of the reservation's eight districts and to take those results to the tribal council.

One resident, Patti Kelly, suggested holding a referendum among American Indian students at UND.

"They're the ones who are going to be there, not us old people," she said.

Though everyone invited to the interviews supports UND's use of the nickname and logo, all said they would abide by a majority referendum vote asking the school to retire the nickname. None of the 11 people interviewed ventured to speculate on how a referendum vote would turn out.

"I'm not sure if it would pass or not," Red Eagle said, "but the answer has to come from the people."


What UND can do

All of those interviewed agreed they'd like UND to do more for the reservation, but many said that should come from a deeper relationship between the tribe and the university, not as a quid pro quo condition placed on the logo's continued use.

Red Eagle said he'd like UND's help establishing an ROTC branch on Standing Rock, to give more discipline to reservation youth. Others suggested UND could fund more scholarships for reservation students or work harder to produce teachers, doctors and nurses to work on the reservation.

John Luke Flying Horse, another veteran, was less concerned about placing conditions on the use of the nickname. He said he thinks UND and Standing Rock should hammer out an agreement in advance that clearly spells out benefits for the tribe.

"In order to pacify people and the council, there has to be an outstretched hand with an olive branch," he said.

Most of those interviewed agreed that neither the tribal council, nor UND, has made a strong enough effort to date at negotiating an agreement, and several criticized UND for proceeding to a court battle with the NCAA rather than making a conciliatory gesture to the tribes.

What UND has done

Most of those interviewed agreed that UND had benefited the tribe significantly in the past, citing programs such as Indians Into Medicine, which produces American Indian physicians, and other UND programs geared toward Indian students.


Adele Little Dog is a retired principal of Little Eagle Day School on the Standing Rock reservation. She said she especially appreciated UND's now-defunct Teacher Corps program, part of the slate of Great Society programs in the 1960s, which trained American Indian teachers.

Many of those teachers went on to work at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools on the reservations and Little Dog said she hired many Teacher Corps-trained teachers during her time as principal.

"I guess I kind of hold UND up because of that," she said "I see no reason for our tribe to be bickering with UND now."

Racism lingers

Nickname opponents have often used American Indian students' stories of harassment on campus to support their claim that the Sioux nickname creates a "hostile and abusive" campus climate as the NCAA claimed.

Nickname supporters have pointed to the relatively slim file of harassment complaints that reach UND Police as evidence that those stories are exaggerated or that the harassed students aren't interested in solving issues of racial hostility on campus.

Many of those interviewed this week downplayed the claims of harassment of American Indians on campus, suggesting that some of those complaining of harassment had brought it on themselves by being combative or taking things too personally.

Others said they couldn't gauge the level of harassment on campus and could only rely on anecdotal evidence from relatives who were UND students and were not harassed.


All agreed, though, on a basic statement: racism exists, on the UND campus and elsewhere, and will continue to exist with or without the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

Robert Gates, Diane Gates' husband, described racism as something that has pervaded his life, as the first American Indian student at a Devils Lake junior high, as a mechanic looking for work in Bismarck and simply living on the reservation.

Prejudice against American Indians always will be a part of life, he said, and will not be attenuated by retiring the Sioux logo.

"Every day I had to fight because I was an Indian," Gates said of his time growing up, "and when they couldn't beat me up anymore, they accepted me."

Gates said Edward Loon, his father-in-law who helped bestow the Sioux nickname and logo on UND, once said to him: "A lot of people will say bad things about you. But we were taught to walk up to them, shake their hands and turn the other cheek."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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