Some Sioux say nickname 'not our identity'

FORT TOTTEN - They cringe each time they see or hear a news report about the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and how their tribe, the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, has taken the lead in defending it.

FORT TOTTEN - They cringe each time they see or hear a news report about the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and how their tribe, the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, has taken the lead in defending it.

Francine McDonald, 53, holds a master's degree in public administration from UND. Her husband, Russell, 49, earned two degrees in sociology before earning his Ph.D in teaching and learning research methodologies.

Arlene de la Paz, 44, graduated from UND's nursing program in 2001. Erich Longie, 58, received a doctorate from UND in 2005 in educational leadership.

Tim Demarce, 59, didn't attend UND. "I don't have any college, but I'm a sports guy," he said. So he watches university athletics, usually on TV, at home on the reservation. He watches the Fighting Sioux despite the name.

"The derogatory signs, I've seen them on TV," he said. "I don't think the name is honoring us."


That was underscored, he said, when he traveled to Grand Forks recently and visited stores and restaurants. People saw his American Indian features and asked him how he felt about the UND nickname, and he told them.

"The looks and comments I received: 'Why don't you go back to the reservation then? What are you doing here?'"

These five Sioux Indians represent a minority view at Spirit Lake, if one judges by results of a 2009 tribal referendum and a Tribal Council resolution last year authorizing the pro-nickname Committee for Understanding and Respect to speak and act for the tribe on the nickname issue.

They question the sources of funding for the 2009 vote, which nickname supporters carried by a 2-1 margin, and they challenge the validity of the committee's position representing the tribe.

They have not been as outspoken as nickname supporters. It's not their way, they say.

But they want the nickname and associated Indian-head logo to go away. They want their tribe to focus on what they say are more important reservation issues: poverty, crime, drugs, health care. They want an end to the divisiveness.

It will be difficult for some to let go, they acknowledge, but time will heal.

"People will move on," Demarce said.


Hearing Thursday

Next stop for the nickname debate: North Dakota's Supreme Court, which has scheduled a hearing in Bismarck on Thursday. Lawyers representing the State Board of Higher Education, the Legislature, the Spirit Lake committee and other parties will argue the constitutionality of the nickname law adopted last spring, repealed in November and reinstated pending a referral vote on the repeal.

"If the Supreme Court is going to listen to arguments, they could start by hearing us out on all those treaties, honoring those treaties and giving us back our land," Longie said.

Longie, president of a consulting company on the reservation, has been the most outspoken Spirit Lake critic of the nickname. He has written and published viewpoint articles on the subject, and in November he testified at the Legislature in favor of repealing a law requiring UND to keep the name despite NCAA sanctions.

"We know tribal councils come and go," he testified, referring to the current council's support for the name. "We are going to stay, and we are going to stay at it. We are going to get that law changed."

He objects to the pro-nickname committee's claim to speak for the Sioux, noting that all Sioux nations except for Spirit Lake are on record opposing UND's use of the name.

He disputes the notion that the fight to preserve the nickname has brought the two cultures closer together. He and other Spirit Lakers who've attended UND encountered a "hostile and abusive environment, an environment caused by use of the nickname."

The debate, carried out in one-on-one conversations and confrontations, in the media and on Internet blogs and comment boards, has sometimes turned "vile and racist," he said. "It has pushed race relations back 40 years."


Slights and insults

McDonald, human resources director at the Spirit Lake Casino, first went to UND in 1977, right out of high school.

"The university's sports teams were the Fighting Sioux, but I didn't pay any attention to it then," she said.

That changed in the late 1990s, when she and Russell worked on their advanced degrees. Russell started in 1998.

"He was going to UND and coming back here on the weekends," Francine said. "He saw the effects of the nickname there, and we would talk about it. But I didn't realize what he was talking about until I went there and experienced it myself."

Each tells of slights and insults, of ugly and threatening incidents. Nickname supporters, including Sioux Indians, have discounted such stories, calling them isolated exceptions and often not backed by police reports or other evidence.

But the signs and shouts of "Sioux suck!" and worse happened, critics of the nickname say, and they are too easily dismissed by defenders who haven't spent much time at UND except as visitors brought in to see a hockey game from box seats.

"They're treated like celebrities," Longie said. "They don't see the little things, the rejection, the sneers, the people who don't want to wait on you at the counters, or if they wait on you, they are not courteous."


'Not our identity'

Francine McDonald said she is offended each time she hears a nickname supporter argue that UND's use of Fighting Sioux provides visibility to the Sioux people and ensures their survival.

"They say that if it goes away, we'll disappear as a people? No. We will not disappear," she said. "That nickname is not our identity."

If the name goes, "We're still going to have powwows," Longie said. "We're still going to have our ceremonies. We're still going to eat fry bread. We are still going to be a people."

De la Paz, now CEO at the Indian Health Service clinic at Spirit Lake, said that she grew weary of being narrowly defined as an Indian - not a nursing student, not a woman, not a North Dakotan - and questioned about how she felt about the nickname. It's a complaint frequently made by current American Indian students at UND, including several who have filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding that the name be dropped.

"Whenever I was on a bus or in class, I felt isolated," De la Paz said. "When people asked what I thought, I told them I didn't have an opinion. But they kept asking.... I believe it was an avenue for racism.

"There's a lot of people here who have never been off the reservation who say, 'They're honoring us by using the name.' But have they walked the campus to see how we're being honored? My own mom - I've argued with her about it. She's 76 and never been away, and she says they're honoring us. I say, 'Mom! You don't know.'

"She's always mad at me. I'm the outspoken one in the family."


No words needed

Francine McDonald said she had the same experiences during her years at UND.

"I'd tell them I didn't want the name used, and they would say, 'Well, why don't you go back to the reservation then?' "

The McDonalds said they attended a UND hockey game about 12 years ago with white friends, a couple they knew from church in Grand Forks.

"They felt what we felt," Russell said. "They asked us, 'Do you guys want to leave?' It was looks, nothing spoken, but it was there, a presence, and they felt it."

Because of Spirit Lake's official stance supporting the nickname, he said he gets ribbed by Sioux from other reservations. "They say, 'So, still selling out, are you?' "

Chuck Haga is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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