On Air
Open In Popup
MPR News

UND says trademark case doesn't relate to former nickname

Share story

University of North Dakota
The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., June 22, 2013.
Jimmy Emerson | Creative Commons via Flickr 302

A man who is helping lead a social media campaign in support of the University of North Dakota's retired Fighting Sioux nickname says a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an unrelated case offers hope, but a UND spokesman says there's no comparison.

Justices on Monday struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks, saying that barring disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights. The ruling came in a case involving an Asian-American rock band called the Slants, but it could give a boost to the NFL's Washington Redskins in their separate legal fight over the team name.

UND's retired nickname is no longer being contested in the courts, but it's still a topic of public discussion five years later and somewhat similar to the Redskins debate — opponents consider the moniker racist while supporters say it honors American Indians.

David Davidson of Devils Lake, who with his full-blooded-Sioux wife, Eunice, helped organize "The Sioux Were Silenced" Facebook and YouTube campaign that has thousands of followers, thinks the ruling in the Slants case might provide an impetus for supporters to pressure either UND or the NCAA for restoration of the nickname that the NCAA deemed offensive to Native Americans.

"Should the Washington Redskins prevail, it opens up a whole new ballgame," he said.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said "there is no direct connection" between the matter before the Supreme Court and the UND nickname issue, and he declined to speculate whether the Grand Forks school would ever consider restoring the nickname.

"The NCAA's objection to the use of Fighting Sioux was unrelated to a question of whether UND had a valid trademark," he said.

The NCAA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the Supreme Court ruling might impact its policy on Indian nicknames.

UND did have a valid trademark for Fighting Sioux, which had existed since the 1930s. But in 2005 the NCAA put the university on a list of 19 schools with Indian nicknames, logos and mascots it considered offensive. UND sued and later reached a settlement with the NCAA under which the moniker would be retired and the NCAA would drop threatened sanctions including barring UND from hosting lucrative and prestigious postseason tournaments.

The nickname and logo were dropped in 2012, the same year state residents also voted overwhelmingly against them. Davidson doesn't think the election truly showed the will of the people.

"They didn't vote against the nickname — they voted against the sanctions," he said.

UND in late 2015 began using its new Fighting Hawks nickname, a moniker selected in a vote of alumni, students and staff. Merchandise with the new bird-themed logo went on sale late last summer, but Davidson said he'll never buy any.

"Good God, no," he said.