Keeping Score

NCAA Blunder: Changing North Dakota’s Tribal Nickname

The NCAA forced the University of North Dakota to change its Native American nickname, even though a local tribe gave the school its blessing to use it, and a name change will cost the public school significant money

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Steve Kotvis / Southcreek Global / Zumapress
Steve Kotvis / Southcreek Global / Zumapress

The uniform of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey team.

For years, college and pro sports teams have taken heat for caricaturing Native Americans with their nicknames and mascots. Sometimes, teams do the right thing. In 1994, for example, St. John’s University changed its name from the Redmen to the Red Storm. At other times, they’ve acted irresponsibly. We still have the Washington Redskins, and the Cleveland Indians haven’t scrubbed Chief Wahoo — a cartoonish representation of a Native American — off their hats. In other instances, a tribe’s backing has allowed a team to keep its nickname, as happened with the Florida State Seminoles and the Utah Utes.

And then there’s the puzzling, unique case of North Dakota. In 1930, the University of North Dakota (UND) adopted “Sioux” as its nickname for its sports teams. UND teams then became the Fighting Sioux in the 1960s. Spirit Lake, the Sioux reservation closest to the University of North Dakota’s campus in Grand Forks, overwhelmingly backs the name. The tribe argues, and evidence seems to support the case, that Spirit Lake and another local Sioux reservation, Standing Rock, actually gave UND its blessing to use the nickname in a religious ceremony over 40 years ago.

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On the surface, the name seems harmless and even a positive for the Sioux nation — many Irish Americans, for example, bleed Notre Dame green simply because of the school’s Fighting Irish moniker. The school’s logo is not cartoonish; it’s classy in its simplicity: a headshot of a stern-looking Sioux warrior. Nor does UND have an idiotic mascot who would be unflattering to Native Americans. In April, the North Dakota legislature passed a law stipulating that the University of North Dakota would always be known as the Fighting Sioux.

So why, then, is the University of North Dakota preparing to phase it out?

For Spirit Lake tribe members, the blame rests with a familiar foe: the NCAA. In 2005, the NCAA mandated that UND and 17 other schools ban the use of American-Indian imagery and nicknames. If they refused, the schools would not be able to host postseason events or use the nickname or logo during postseason play. “Why should the NCAA come in and tell us that we should be offended?” asks Frank Black Cloud, Spirit Lake’s pro-nickname leader. “It makes no sense to us.”

UND sued the NCAA, arguing that the Fighting Sioux name was neither hostile nor abusive. Under the terms of the lawsuit settlement, the NCAA said that if the university wanted to keep the Fighting Sioux name and not face sanctions, both Spirit Lake and Standing Rock, the other Sioux reservation headquartered in North Dakota, would need to approve it. In 2009, Spirit Lake put the question to a full tribal vote: members voted by a 2-to-1 ratio in favor of keeping the name. “UND has allowed us to participate and have input on some of the Indian programs they have developed,” says John Chaske, a Spirit Lake member. “The school deserves to use our name. We should take pride in that. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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Standing Rock’s tribal council has voted to eliminate the name. The council, however, has not put the question to a full tribal vote, to the dismay of Standing Rock members who like the Fighting Sioux. “Aw, man, it’s not right for people not to have a say,” says Archie D. Fool Bear, a member of Standing Rock. Fool Bear says he has petition signatures from 1,000 Standing Rock residents opposing the nickname change, and he is confident his side would prevail in a full vote. Calls to the home and office of Charlie Murphy, chairman of the Standing Rock tribal council, were not returned.

Other Native American tribal councils, from both Sioux nations and non-Sioux nations like North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, have passed resolutions stating their opposition to the Fighting Sioux name and logo. To which Black Cloud responds: Butt out. “We, as tribal members and Sioux, we don’t tell other tribes what to do,” he says. “We would expect that same respect from them as well.” Opponents of the nickname cite instances in which the Sioux logo was defaced on T-shirts worn by supporters of North Dakota State, UND’s archrival. “Those are isolated incidents that people like to exploit to say that’s the norm,” says Black Cloud. “There are several thousand events that happen where the name is held in high respect and high regard.”

In August, top UND officials and state lawmakers, including Governor Jack Dalrymple, met with the NCAA in Indianapolis. There, they asked the organization to reconsider its stance on the Fighting Sioux name. Spirit Lake was not asked to participate. “How can we not have a seat at the table?” asks Black Cloud.

In response to an interview request, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson wrote in an e-mail, “The settlement between the NCAA and the university gave the university three years to obtain agreement from the tribes. That did not occur. The policy does not require a change in nickname or logo. That is a university decision. But without a change, the university cannot host a championship or display the nickname or logo at a championship.”

After that meeting, at which the NCAA made clear that UND would face sanctions if the nickname wasn’t changed and the logo wasn’t removed, the North Dakota legislature repealed the April law keeping the Fighting Sioux name on the books. “The directive from the State Board of Higher Education is to transition away from the nickname and logo,” says Peter Johnson, a UND spokesman. “At this point in time, that’s the best thing for our athletic programs. There’s no question about that.”

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Fighting Sioux supporters argue that the NCAA is violating their religious rights. The Grand Forks Herald reported on July 21, 1969, that “a band of Standing Rock Sioux formally gave UND teams the right to use the name of ‘Fighting Sioux’ for their athletic teams.” Black Cloud insists that Spirit Lake members also took part in this ritual blessing. (UND recognizes that a ceremony took place but says the intent of it remains unclear.) So why should a current tribal council, the NCAA or anyone else reverse the wishes of the elders who are so respected in Native American culture? “If we let an outside entity dictate to us how we should feel about our sacred ceremonies,” says Black Cloud, “what does that say about us?”

The NCAA has plenty of issues to worry about, most importantly melding academics and athletics. Isn’t the organization picking the wrong fight here? According to UND, a public university, the estimated cost of selecting a new nickname, removing the Fighting Sioux logo from athletic facilities across campus and ordering new equipment and apparel without the Fighting Sioux logo would be at least $750,000.

Spirit Lake and the 1,000 nickname supporters from the Standing Rock tribe recently filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming violation of religious rights. Black Cloud is also leading an effort to repeal the repeal of the state law keeping the Fighting Sioux name in place. “We fight for what Spirit Lake wants,” says Black Cloud. “Why is the NCAA ignoring us? We are a sovereign nation. The name is an enormous source of pride. To have that taken away from us — it’s more hurtful than you can possibly understand.”

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