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UND NICKNAME: Working together

When Ute Indian tribal leaders voted to allow the University of Utah to continue using the tribe's name for its athletic teams, tribal members were under no illusion that the nickname carried no negative connotations, said Forrest Cuch, executive...

When Ute Indian tribal leaders voted to allow the University of Utah to continue using the tribe's name for its athletic teams, tribal members were under no illusion that the nickname carried no negative connotations, said Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Indians Affairs for the state of Utah.

"It's a paradox," said Cuch, an enrolled Ute, "because the tribe is well aware that mascots were historically selected based on identifying the trait of ferocity - or being aggressive and powerful - with the athletic team. They understand that it's an insult. But they're willing to rise above that if the university is willing to use it in a respectful manner."

The Utes also have an interest in the nickname remaining, Cuch said, because it advertises the small tribe's presence in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

"There's no other landmark or advertising symbol or logo to suggest that American Indians once occupied the Salt Lake Valley or this portion of Utah," he said. "The tribes are willing to accept that otherwise put-down label in order to advance their presence, not only statewide but nationwide."

The University of Utah is one of five schools that have been granted a special NCAA exemption allowing them to retain American Indian nicknames and other imagery because they've won approval from a namesake tribe.

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Three years from now, UND will be the sixth school on that list if it can win approval from leaders of both of the state's Sioux reservations, according to a settlement agreement signed Oct. 26 in the school's legal battle with the NCAA.

If it cannot win tribal sanction, UND will join 12 other schools that have agreed to retire their nicknames, logos and mascots.

Retain or retire

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has said his tribal council is unlikely to reverse its 2001 resolution opposing the nickname.

In a meeting with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem before the settlement was announced, His Horse Is Thunder said Spirit Lake Chairwoman Myra Pearson echoed those sentiments.

But some UND and state officials have been optimistic about the nickname's chances for survival.

"I just have faith that rational people will come together and find a common ground," said Tim O'Keefe, UND Alumni Association executive vice president.

In the week after the UND-NCAA settlement, university leaders at schools that have won namesake exceptions and tribal leaders that made those exceptions possible both told the Herald that cooperation can happen.

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But both sides also warn that cooperation is the key word and that a tribal endorsement of a school's nickname can never be taken for granted.

An open mind

Cuch said both the University of Utah and the Ute tribe benefited from their conversations about the Utes nickname.

"It's good to have that dialogue between the university community and the tribes," he said. "It's healthy because there's an educational process that occurs and out of that comes some more understanding. It hasn't solved our problems, but it's created a dialogue."

Like UND, the University of Utah has a number of American Indian-focused programs and several scholarships that benefit American Indian students. But there were no conditions placed on the tribe's endorsement of the nickname, and the university did not promise anything in exchange, said Fred Esplin, the school's vice president for university relations.

Cuch, however, said he doesn't see anything wrong with a tribe endorsing a nickname in exchange for financial consideration, perhaps a portion of royalties for the nickname's use.

"I don't see anything wrong with that if young people benefit from it and it's done in a respectful way," Cuch said. "Universities, for the most part, want to be respectful."

Cuch urged both sides in UND's nickname debate to come to the table with an open mind and said he thinks a compromise is usually possible.

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"I'd encourage them to develop an attitude that something good can come out of this," he said. "There needs to be an honest, good faith effort to resolve the issue and acquire a better understanding. If they gave it their best and it didn't work out, then they should change the name, but there's a chance for a win-win for all."

Communication

Universities that have won namesake exceptions often say the key is a dialogue with tribes and a willingness to submit to the tribe's decision that stretches back before the 2005 NCAA mandate barring American Indian nicknames.

"The University of Utah's position on the name is that we're honored they allow us to use it," said Esplin, the school's vice president for university relations. "We've agreed both internally and with the tribe that we'll use it only with their blessing. That goes back decades, long before the NCAA."

Utah university officials continue to meet with tribal leaders about once a year, Esplin said, but see them more often at athletic home games.

For Central Michigan University, which won a namesake exception for its Chippewas nickname, communication with the Saginaw-Chippewa tribe was inevitable because the tribe's land stretches nearly to the campuse's front door.

"We meet with them as things come up, if not daily, certainly a couple of times a week," said CMU spokesman Steve Smith. "It's almost a town-gown thing because we're so close. It's a fairly small community in Mount Pleasant (Mich.) So, you've got the tribe, you've got the city and you've got the U. All three units work together closely and know each other pretty well."

Joseph Sowmick, Saginaw Chippewa public relations director, said the tribe was offended when the NCAA initially banned American Indian nicknames because the association had not sought the tribe's opinion. He said Saginaw-Chippewa tribe members spoke with NCAA officials on CMU's behalf.

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"When we spoke with (NCAA Senior Vice President) Bernard Franklin about our relationship with CMU, he was pleasantly surprised and supportive," Sowmick said.

Sowmick rattled off a series of cooperative projects between CMU and the tribe including an agreement that will begin next week to insert the tribal newspaper inside CMU's student newspaper. He suggested UND might gain points with Sioux tribes if it had a larger presence on the reservations rather than focusing on programs for American Indians on the UND campus.

"In the paper, you see all sorts of connections between the tribes and the U," he said. "So, if you look in the Sioux papers and the student papers and don't see any connections, then that would be a place to start."

Willingness to

change

Listening to the tribes and accepting what they say has also meant changes for Utah and Michigan.

Through the late '60s, University of Utah teams carried the "Running Redskins" nickname, Esplin said. Around 1970, that was changed to the Running Utes and later retired entirely.

For a time, the school had a mascot called the Crimson Warrior portrayed by a local American Indian, Esplin said, but that too was retired in the early '80s and replaced with Swoop, the red-tailed hawk.

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The only American Indian imagery that remains now, is the Utes name and an athletic logo that includes a feather inside a circle.

Central Michigan also dropped an athletic logo of an American Indian chief in a feather headdress.

Never 100 percent support

Even with tribal approval, American Indian nicknames are rarely free from controversy.

The most significant opposition to the Utes name has come from non-Ute American Indians on campus, Esplin said.

"They did have a very strong feeling that the use of any Native American was disrespectful," Esplin said. "I'm sympathetic to that. The thing we wrestled with is 'we hear you, but shouldn't the Utes themselves have a voice.' And they want us to keep it. They've not just given their permission, but they've welcomed it. At the end of the day, that trumped it for us."

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

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