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UND Fighting Sioux nickname battle refuses to die

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John Chaske
John Chaske is an elder from the Spirit Lake tribe and a member of a pro-nickname group. He says supporters will use every option available in an effort to keep the nickname.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The controversy over the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname refuses to die. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the twists and turns in the nickname saga. 

Lawsuits have been filed, laws passed, laws repealed, the nickname's been retired, it's been reinstated -- all because nickname supporters refuse to give up. 

"There's a lot of Sioux pride still standing in this fight," said one vocal supporter of the nickname, Frank Burggraf, who played hockey at the University of North Dakota and now runs a hockey school in Fargo. "I've learned as was bestowed on us at the university when I played, we never quit, we dig in.  We're standing on truth and principle."

The controversy started when UND adopted the Sioux nickname in the 1930s.  American Indians began protesting the name and logo in the 1960s. In 2005, the NCAA labeled the nickname hostile and abusive and has threatened sanctions against the university if the nickname is not retired. In 2009, UND began the process of doing just that.  

That's when the North Dakota Legislature weighed in, passing a law mandating use of the nickname.  After the NCAA refused to change its position on the nickname, the legislature repealed the law. Nickname supporters then gathered thousands of petition signatures to refer the issue to a statewide vote.  The law mandating use of the nickname was reinstated until the referral is decided. 

Meanwhile, nickname supporters such as Burggraf are also gathering signatures to place a constitutional amendment requiring use of Fighting Sioux nickname on the November general election ballot.

University leaders say continued use of the nickname will damage UND's athletic programs and reputation, but Burggraf disagrees. 

"This name does not bring harm to the University of North Dakota.  I question where the harm is coming from," he said. 

Tim O' Keefe knows where some of that harm comes from. He's CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation says that in the past week, UND's athletic director took calls from Iowa and the University of Minnesota. 

"Our track team was set to go to Iowa for a meet in the not to distant future. They called and uninvited us," O'Keefe said. And if the nickname issue isn't resolved, the hockey rivalry between UND and the University of Minnesota will end. "To not be able to play them and continue one of the greatest rivalries in the history of collegiate hockey, I don't know how you could not call that damaging from an institutional, from a program, from a recruiting, from an economic, from a reputational standpoint

UND also faces NCAA sanctions as long as the nickname is used.  The school can't host tournament games. Teams can't use the nickname or logo in post season play. 

Still, the dispute against using the nickname has a twist. UND agreed in 2007 to stop using the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo unless namesake tribes approved. The Spirit Lake tribe voted to allow use of the nickname, but the Standing Rock tribe did not grant permission - thus rendering a split decision.

And some nickname supporters still believe the NCAA will reconsider and allow the Fighting Sioux nickname. John Chaske, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe which voted to allow UND to use the nickname, been a leader in the pro-nickname movement. He thinks for many North Dakotans, this is a power struggle. 

"Who does the NCAA think they are to tell us North Dakotans what we can or can't do? That's the sentiment that's building," he said. "If we do have an election and you have an overwhelming vote in favor of it they're going to have to take and look at it differently." 

The Spirit Lake group is also suing the NCAA.  Chaske says the group will exhaust every option to keep the nickname.  

O'Keefe said he understands that passion. He did not want to advocate for retiring the Fighting Sioux nickname, but he said the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against continued use. 

"Look, it isn't as though I and others that are speaking out at this time don't fully recognize and aren't in our own pain over what we're losing," he said. "But there are times where you have to cut your losses. And this is one of them." 

It's unclear if this dispute will end anytime soon. The North Dakota Supreme Court is being asked to consider the constitutionality of the state law passed last year mandating use of the nickname.  And if petitions submitted by nickname supporters are approved, there could be a statewide vote in June.  Meanwhile, lawsuits for and against the nickname are working their way through the courts.