AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
By what name the University of North Dakota sporting teams will be called is a controversy that never seems to end.
The decades old battle over the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, as well as the use of an Indian head logo, has seen its share of ups and downs. The administration of the University of North Dakota and the Board of Higher Education, under direct pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), has wanted for years to do away with the nickname and the logo. The NCAA has deemed the nickname and logo as being offensive to Native Americans. The UND fan base, as well as other supporters, believe that the nickname and logo show great pride in the Sioux heritage and that there is nothing demeaning or derogatory in their use.
To give a little background on the controversy, the University of North Dakota and the NCAA reached a deal several years ago that if the two main Sioux tribes in North Dakota, the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes, would agree that the university could continue to use the nickname and logo, the NCAA would accept their vote. Unfortunately, only the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe passed the referendum, while the leadership of the Standing Rock tribe refused to put the issue to a vote of its members.
With the stalemate firmly in place, in 2009 the University of North Dakota began making plans to retire the logo and the nickname. But that effort was scuttled in 2011 when the North Dakota Legislature passed a bill requiring UND to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo in hopes that the NCAA would back off their position. Eleven months later, during a special legislative session in November, the legislature repealed the law setting in motion the university once again moving forward with its plans to retire the logo and nickname.
But that would not be the end of the controversy surrounding the issue.
Even after the university had dropped the “Fighting Sioux” from all the school’s athletic uniforms (except for the hockey teams) and changed all the names on its web sites, supporters of the nickname rallied one more time. This time, the nickname and logo were resurrected once again when supporters turned in over 17,000 signatures to the North Dakota Secretary of State seeking to put the issue to a vote of the citizens of North Dakota in this coming June Primary Election. And as part of that process, the repealed state law requiring the school to use the nickname has now gone back into effect, which means the “Fighting Sioux” is back.
But for the loyal Sioux supporters their joy may have been very short lived. This past Monday, the state’s Higher Education Board voted to file a lawsuit based on the premise that the law is unconstitutional (remember, it was the law that was passed by the legislature, then later repealed, and is now back in place because the voters will have a chance to decide the issue on the June 12 election ballot). That decision came following a meeting with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem who assured the board that the law violates the state constitution.
If the Board of Higher Education is successful in getting the State Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit which would block the issue from going to the vote before the citizens of North Dakota, the issue may finally come to an end.
What is pretty clear in all of this is that there are very passionate people on both sides of the debate about the Fighting Sioux nickname and its associated logo. Unfortunately, for the supporters it is one thing when they only had to battle the NCAA and its edicts. It is however, quite another issue when the people of North Dakota have to battle the state Board of Higher Education and the university’s administration, both of which want to wash their hands of the Fighting Sioux nickname and its associated logo.
For a subject that has been brewing for the past decades, what difference should it make to the Board of Higher Education whether or not the people of North Dakota had their chance to vote on the issue in June. Perhaps it is time to let all of the people of the state have their say just this once on whether or not they like the Fighting Sioux.
Will the vote of the people of North Dakota make a difference to the NCAA? Probably not. Will it save the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo? Who knows. But at least, the Board of Higher Education and the administration at the University of North Dakota would know where the people of North Dakota stand on the issue.
Let the people have their vote. And then they can declare the law unconstitutional, if they must. Or if they have the guts.