The state Supreme Court in North Dakota is about to consider this question: Can lawmakers require a college to name its sports teams after a Native American tribe?
For decades, University of North Dakota teams have been known as the "Fighting Sioux." It's a name some see as an honor and others find demeaning. Now, the long fight over the Fighting Sioux may be settled in a courtroom.
2,400 Logos And A 'Vexing' Dispute
If there is any place to see the Fighting Sioux logo, it's at the university's hockey arena. The head of an Indian warrior wearing feathers is everywhere in the stadium — on team jerseys, etched on the aisles, on walls, in locker rooms, even in the granite floors.
Chris Semrau is the events director for the massive, multimillion-dollar building that is commonly called "The Ralph." He says there are approximately 2,400 logos throughout the facility.
The late Ralph Engelstad, a Las Vegas casino owner and former UND hockey player, donated $100 million to build the arena, which was completed in 2001. During construction, Engelstad threatened to abandon the project if the university dropped the controversial nickname.
Engelstad "was proud of the Sioux and the Fighting Sioux name and logo," Semrau says. He insisted the school keep the name and ensure the logo was prominently displayed "as a testament to those people. And this building really serves as a monument to them," Semrau says.
Enter the NCAA. In 2005, the body called Native American mascots and nicknames used by 18 schools "hostile and abusive." To keep the names, the NCAA told schools, the schools had to get permission from the tribes their sports teams were named after. Otherwise, the teams would be sanctioned; they would not be able to use any of the Native American imagery during post-season play and they would not be able to host lucrative NCAA championships.
Brian Faison, University of North Dakota's athletic director, says what followed at the university was "very vexing. No question."
A Legal Tangle
UND is the last of the 18 schools to come to terms with the NCAA policy. There have been a series of lawsuits and legislative actions involving the university since 2005, sometimes allowing it to use the name Fighting Sioux and sometimes forbidding it.
In addition, Faison says, some Big Ten schools won't play colleges with Native American monikers.
"We've lost softball series; we've lost cross-country meets; we lost swim meets; we've lost a track meet," Faison says, all "because we were the Fighting Sioux."
"Then we were directed not to be the Fighting Sioux," he continues. "Then we were the Fighting Sioux. [Then] we were directed not [to be] the Fighting Sioux."
The school's teams "have been very patient," Faison says. "But the reality is, if and when we are the Fighting Sioux, they cannot play."
UND started removing the Fighting Sioux name and most of its imagery from campus in 2010. But last spring, the state Legislature intervened, passing a bill that not only resurrected the name, but also mandated the university to use it.
State Rep. Al Carlson sponsored the bill. "The citizens came to us and said, 'Don't let that name go. It's been given to us by the tribes, and now some outside organization decides it's hostile and abusive — even though we believe it's not,'" he says.
BJ Rainbow, a Native American student at the university, says lawmakers should find better things to do with their time. He calls the logo a stereotype that has caused bitter arguments on campus and says it's time for it to go.
"We have this campaign here called 'More Than Beads and Feathers,' and yet we still have this logo," Rainbow says.
Lawmakers repealed the Fighting Sioux law during a special session more than a year ago. But now, a petition drive has forced its reinstatement. There will be a statewide referendum in June if the signatures stand.
North Dakota's Board of Higher Education wants to retire the name, however, and skip the referendum. And the state's Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday. In the meantime, supporters are gathering even more signatures for another referendum that would enshrine the Fighting Sioux name in the state constitution.
Tribes Are Split
What makes the UND case different from other universities that faced sanctions is that it must receive approval from two Lakota, or Sioux, tribes. But members of only one have approved.
Members of the Spirit Lake Reservation and other Fighting Sioux supporters gathered recently for a press conference, where tribal elder John Chaske argued their case. "We believe that the Fighting Sioux name and symbol is something special, something sacred," he said.
Chaske argues that American Indians actually approved using the nickname and logo in 1969 during a special ceremony with university officials. Chaske says since then residents of the Spirit Lake reservation voted 2-to-1 in support of the Fighting Sioux.
About 200 miles away, the Standing Rock Reservation sits among rolling hills. A burial site of the famous Lakota, Sitting Bull is located there.
The tribal council at Standing Rock has repeatedly voted not to consider the Fighting Sioux issue, so residents there haven't voted on it.
Angela Montclair, a student at the reservation's Sitting Bull College, doesn't care about the controversy. "Don't matter to me. It's just a logo," she says. "There are many sports teams that use Native American logos, like Redskins and all those other teams. They should go after everybody if they just want to go after UND."
Allison Two-Bears, an environmental technician who works for the tribe, feels differently. She attended rival North Dakota State University and says the derogatory chants her fellow students shouted about the Fighting Sioux are reason enough to get rid of it.
"Sioux suck s - - -. That's what my fellow classmates were chanting. It made me feel very uncomfortable," Two-Bears says. "That's what rivals do and I understand that. But being from that culture, I felt there was no respect behind that name."
Inside the White Buffalo Food Mart, store owner Sandy Luger says he also disapproves of the school team name, but he understands that others feel differently.
"Nobody wants to be a mascot. But other people think that it's an honor to be part of that tradition of Sioux warriors," Luger says. He guesses the reservation is split almost 50-50 on the nickname.
A Controversy Far From Over
That split, says Chaske, is exactly why there should be a statewide vote on the issue. He says it would give the residents of the Standing Rock tribe a chance to officially weigh in on the debate. A positive vote, he says, will rebuke the NCAA and force it to stop what he considers overly punitive action against the university.
"They are speaking with two tongues," he says. Chaske thinks the NCAA has been unfair to schools by granting waivers to some universities, but not others.
During a recent UND women's basketball game, the players' uniforms boasted not the Sioux logo, but the school's initials.
Senior Michelle Sehn, who plays trombone in the UND band, has mixed feelings about the debate.
"I'll always be a Fighting Sioux. I think it's impossible not to be a Fighting Sioux," she says. "But I understand that people are unhappy with it, and I don't think it's worth having such a big fight and debate over it if it's going to hold the school back."
So while Sehn may still feel like a "Fighting Sioux," she's OK wearing a band jersey that simply says "PRIDE." But the way things are going in North Dakota, her uniform could change a few more times.