BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – State senators voted March 11 to force the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname, but the school’s president said he would take his orders from the Board of Higher Education instead.
The Senate’s 28-15 vote, following last month’s overwhelming approval in the House, sets up a confrontation with the NCAA and the state education board, which asserts that it has the final say on whether the nickname stays or goes.
A spokesman said Gov. Jack Dalrymple would sign the bill requiring the nickname to stay in place.
The legislation says UND and the board may not “take any action to discontinue the use of the Fighting Sioux nickname or the Fighting Sioux logo,” and says the law overrides previous decisions to do so. The logo depicts the profile of an American Indian warrior. The NCAA considers both the name and logo offensive.
If UND keeps them, the association says the school will be ineligible to host postseason tournaments, and its athletes may not wear the nickname and logo on their uniforms in postseason games. School officials worry the dispute will complicate the school’s plans to join the NCAA’s Division I Big Sky Conference next year.
The university’s president, Robert Kelley, said March 11 the school will follow the board’s earlier order to retire the logo and nickname in August, unless it gets new directions from the board.
The board’s president, Jon Backes, and its vice president, Grant Shaft, did not immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. William Goetz, chancellor of the state university system, said he expected the board will meet to consider its next move shortly after Dalrymple signs the legislation.
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson responded to a request for comment March 11 with a one-sentence statement: “This is a state issue and the NCAA policy remains unchanged.”
During debate before March 11’s vote, Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider – a former UND football player whose district includes the university – said Fighting Sioux fans “would not want to sacrifice our student athletes for the sake of this legislation.”
Schneider played on UND’s NCAA Division II championship team in 2001. UND played three home playoff games on its way to the title, which Schneider said was crucial to the team’s championship run.
Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue said keeping the nickname and logo would “defend our unique North Dakota culture.”
“I can’t agree that this bill, and this name, is about student athletes alone,” Hogue said. “I think it’s much more than that ...This is about heritage, and that’s where I see this bill. It’s preserving that heritage.”
More than five years ago, the NCAA declared the American Indian nicknames and imagery used by 19 member schools were “hostile and abusive” to Indians. Schools were told they would face sanctions unless they changed the nicknames and imagery or got permission from the affected tribes to keep them.
The University of North Dakota challenged the NCAA’s ruling in state court in Grand Forks, where UND is located. It was settled in October 2007. The settlement gave UND three years to obtain consent from North Dakota’s Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes to continue using the nickname and logo.
The Spirit Lake Sioux’s tribal council granted its permission to use the name and logo after they were endorsed in a reservation referendum. The Standing Rock tribe, whose council has long opposed the nickname and logo, declined to hold a referendum.
When the Standing Rock tribe refused to endorse the nickname and logo, the Board of Higher Education directed UND to drop them. The school stopped licensing new Fighting Sioux merchandise last year, and has been planning to retire the nickname and logo in August.
Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, said it was “beyond insulting” to argue that keeping the nickname and logo “has any equivalence to the preservation of actual native culture in this state.”
“If we cared in this state to preserve the history of the Native Americans who once possessed this land, we would be putting our time and our resources into having conversations of this depth and this length about actually preserving culture and history of Native Americans,” Triplett said. “We would not be talking about logos for university athletics.”