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Ten years after Fighting Sioux retirement vote, alumni association doesn’t see backlash once feared

In a statewide vote in June 2012, residents voted in favor of dropping the Fighting Sioux name, and it was officially retired in December.

Fighting Sioux logo on ice
The UND Fighting Sioux logo appears on center ice of Ralph Engelstad Arena. (Herald file photo)
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GRAND FORKS — Ten years ago, as the North Dakota statewide vote neared to allow UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname, a claim was often made or feared that moving on from the controversial moniker would trigger a donor backlash.

The theory was that removing the Fighting Sioux nickname would hurt the university's pocketbook due to retaliating alumni.

As the 10-year anniversary of that vote passes this summer, figures from the UND Alumni Association show record fundraising in recent years well beyond the marks of 2012 and the years leading up to the nickname change.

In 2012, UND raised $45,183,444. In the six years following, UND raised between $33,406,474 (fiscal year 2016) and $48,282,870 (FY 2015) annually.

The last three complete fiscal years (2019, 2020, 2021), UND's totals have popped to $67,653,118 (FY 2019), $80,146,325 (FY 2020) and $64,391,943 (FY 2021).

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"We had some people through the process tell us they'd like to withdraw and were upset," said Milo Smith, the UND Alumni Association's Senior Director of Public Relations. "Some followed through and some changed their minds. We had a wide gamut of different responses. But ultimately, when you look at the numbers, we definitely have had a good response from our alumni and friends since 2012."

Smith said some of the ebb and flow in giving between fiscal years can be tied to large building projects. For instance, in 2016, the association wasn't soliciting dollars for a large building project and the final total for that fiscal season was $33,406,474 — the lowest total since 2010.

In 2019 and 2020, though, UND was working toward a $70 million fundraising goal for the Nistler College of Business and Public Administration, which was sparked by a $20 million lead gift from Werner and Colleen Nistler. The project featured gifts from more than 100 donors.

Smith didn't want to discount those UND alumni who still hold strong feelings about the retired nickname, but he said it's less of a talking point on the association's travels these days.

"We have a lot of alumni gatherings around the state and region, and I don't know that it comes up as much as it used to," he said. "When the president is there, they're asking questions about things on campus especially since the pandemic. They want to know how students are reacting and their mental health. A lot of people want to talk athletic teams and what next year will look like. We don't hear a lot of talk about the nickname in 2022 ... not to say it's totally gone away, there's certainly still people in which it's a major issue for them. But that's a pretty small group as far as what we hear on a daily and weekly basis."

Smith said he couldn't offer specifics of the nearly completed 2022 fiscal year, but he said supporters of the university will be happy.

On June 11, 2012, the statewide nickname vote was on the ballot as Referendum Measure No. 4, to keep or retire the nickname.

In the vote, 67.35% of North Dakota voters chose to uphold the North Dakota Legislature's November 2011 repeal of the law directing retention of the "Fighting Sioux" name, allowing UND to retire the name and logo.

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On June 14, 2012, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted to retire UND's nickname and logo. The university was prohibited from adopting a new team name until 2015.

The vote in 2012 mostly put to rest an issue that dated back decades.

The vote came seven years after the NCAA decided to sanction 19 schools, including UND, with Native American imagery and deemed it to be "hostile and abusive."

The sanctions would not allow these schools to use their names or logos in postseason play, nor would they be able to host postseason championships.

After an unsuccessful appeal to reverse the sanctions, UND started to pursue legal options.

The state board authorized Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to sue the NCAA, which led to a settlement requiring UND to gain authorization of the state's two Sioux tribes within three years to retain the nickname.

Spirit Lake voted to keep the name, but the Standing Rock tribal council didn't hold a vote.

On April 8, 2010, the state board ordered UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname at the end of the 2010-11 season.

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Sioux nickname retirement process news conference (2010)
UND President Robert Kelley (right) answers a question form the audience during a briefing in 2010 on the university's nickname retirement process. At left is UND's V.P. of Student Affairs and the school's transition officer for the nickname retirement process Bob Boyd.

In March of 2011, the North Dakota Senate approved legislation ordering UND to retain the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the bill into law, but it was then repealed during a special session in November after the NCAA told the state sanctions would be enforced.

In February of 2012, Fighting Sioux nickname supporters collected more than 17,000 signatures to put the decision to statewide vote in June. UND resumed use of the nickname until the vote.

Petition signer
Charles Tuttle, a backer of the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname, watches as a woman signs petitions supporting the nickname on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, in front of the federal courthouse in Bismarck, N.D. Nickname advocates planned to turn in the petitions to Secretary of State Al Jaeger before midnight Tuesday, hoping they had enough signatures to force a statewide vote on whether the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., should have to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname.

“The University of North Dakota appreciates the love members of our community have for the University, our student athletics and our history," said Meloney Linder, UND's vice president of marketing and communications. "As a University, we are focused on the future and look forward to continuing to build UND’s legacy.”

Related Topics: UND SPORTS
Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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