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Board votes to retire 'Fighting Sioux'

Ron His Horse is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, updates the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education about what would need to happen to achieve approval of the Fighting Sioux nickname from his tribe, at a meeting Thursday at Dickinson State University. Press Photo by John Odermann

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education voted unanimously to retire the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and logo effective Oct. 1 during a meeting Thursday at Dickinson State University.

If the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes approve the nickname, which was previously stipulated in an agreement between the university and the NCAA, the name and logo remain. The tribes would have to approve the nickname and a 30-year agreement with UND to retain use under the resolution.

The decision was partially made due to UND's interest in applying to join the Summit League, which is a NCAA Division I athletic conference.

Summit League president Tom Douple informed board member Grant Shaft, who heads up a fact-finding committee on the nickname, that it would not accept an application from UND for affiliation with the conference until the nickname controversy is resolved.

"I judge what we did today as the best compromise that could both address the separate issue of league affiliation with the tribe's interest in preceding toward a vote," Shaft said.

In October 2007, UND entered into an agreement with the NCAA to resolve the controversy regarding the nickname by receiving approval of the nickname from the two Sioux tribes located in North Dakota before Nov. 30, 2010. The Spirit Lake Tribe voted to approve the use of the name by a vote of 764-371 last month though its Tribal Council has the final say on the issue.

The Standing Rock Tribe has yet to hold a vote, though its Tribal Council chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder said the council has voted not to support the use of the nickname several times and he supports that decision.

"Racism isn't going to change overnight, but by eliminating the symbol, you eliminate for the next generation any worth that is associated with it," His Horse is Thunder said. "Ladies and gentlemen, you have before you an opportunity for greatness. An opportunity to make history -- make history -- and take North Dakota into the forefront on race relations."

Spirit Lake Tribe representatives believe there is support for the nickname and would like to see a vote take place with the Standing Rock Tribe.

Sam Dupris, a nickname proponent hired by the Ralph Engelstad Arena to lobby for the nickname, said he believes removal of the nickname will set back race relations.

"It's terrible to live and be discriminated against because the color of your skin and I will guarantee you that this will happen again," Dupris said. "I don't want to go back 75 years to be that uncomfortable."

Board member Pam Kostelecky of Dickinson moved to amend the original resolution deadline from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1 to allow for two elections to take place on the Standing Rock Reservation, which could influence a decision on the nickname.

Eleven positions on the tribal council will be decided in the July 15 primary election and Sept. 15 general elections.

"I feel that as a true leader we should never disallow our people's voices to be heard," said John Chaske of the Spirit Lake Tribe. "And excuses -- the constitution can go on and on and make that go through 2010, but my opinion is if Standing Rock's people were -- their voice was allowed to be heard that we would hear another side of it."

Intervening issue

Shaft said he was hesitant to resolve the nickname controversy prior to the Nov. 30, 2010 deadline, but UND's search for an athletic conference became an "intervening issue."

"As a nickname and logo supporter, I have some difficulty interrupting that process," Shaft said. "However, I also don't want to be a part of the board that is a roadblock to what is a unique opportunity to the University of North Dakota. And that's where I struggle on this issue."

The attractiveness of affiliation with the Summit League was discussed with UND President Robert Kelley and athletic director Brian Faison, Shaft said, and there are a number of reasons why they believe the conference is the best option as the university makes its transition to Division I athletics.

Among those reasons are an automatic berth to several NCAA tournaments and the current membership of former North Central Conference rivals North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota.

Shaft relayed Douple's feelings as to why UND makes an attractive candidate for admission to the Summit League. However, the league is also reviewing the application of six other schools.

The Summit League has 11 members. Douple informed Shaft and members of his committee that the ideal number would be 12.

It became a situation where the issue needed to be resolved as soon as possible to be considered for the league, Shaft said.

"We cannot let this issue interrupt UND's ability to affiliate," Shaft said. "But on the other hand, there's no guarantees that we'll get into the Summit League. ... And as we heard today, there are no guarantees that those working with the tribes will get the results that are required under the settlement agreement."

After weighing the risks and rewards, Shaft said the decision to retire the nickname on Oct. 1, if the proper stipulations are not met, is the right one.

Moving on

Despite retaining the trademark rights to the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, Kelley said it is time for the university to move on regardless of what happens.

"In many ways the nation's eyes have been on the University of North Dakota for years," Kelley said. "I think that this is going to send a signal that hard decisions can be reached within the North Dakota state board and that North Dakota is moving within compliance with our competitors within the NCAA.

"That's a strong message. It's a positive message. It's a good message."

Kelley added the nickname has a long tradition in North Dakota and there may be some negative response from alumni and donors, but he believes that support lost will return.

If the Oct. 1 deadline comes and goes and the nickname is retired, Kelley said it is likely a transition team would be formed in order to come up with a new nickname and logo.

Kelley declined to comment on whether or not he had any favorites for new nicknames, but did mention that the search for a name could offer unique marketing opportunities for UND. If the Fighting Sioux nickname is retired, Kelley said the school would go as "UND" until a new one is determined.

"I think the critical piece of this is UND comes through this together," Kelley said. "I have every reason to believe that we will go forward together in a positive way."