After bowing to NCAA pressure, the University of North Dakota abandoned its Fighting Sioux nickname. This week, the school was legally required to adopt it again, at least until the voters have their say in a state referendum this summer.
Bill Littlefield spoke with Dale Wetzel, the North Dakota State Capital reporter for the Associated Press, about the ongoing controversy, which dates back to a 2005 NCAA policy banning teams from using “hostile or abusive” nicknames and mascots during postseason play.
“Eventually there was a settlement and part of the settlement was [UND] could use its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo if it got approval from the two major Sioux Indian tribes in North Dakota: the Standing Rock Sioux and the Spirit Lake Sioux,” Wetzel said.
The Spirit Lake Tribe held a referendum and tribe members voted to allow the use of the Fighting Sioux, but the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council opposes the nickname. Last year, the state legislature passed a law forcing the school to use the name, but when the NCAA didn’t back down from its stance, legislators repealed the measure.
This week, referendum organizers presented more than 17,000 signatures on a petition calling for a statewide vote, which will be held in June. Wetzel says it’s not clear which side will prevail.
“About a year ago, I would have said the nickname and logo would be approved,” Wetzel said. “But … there is this fairly strong campaign that says forcing UND to use its nickname and logo will in the long term be harmful to the university’s athletic program.”
UND is a college hockey powerhouse with seven Frozen Four appearances, including a national championship, since 2000. If the school continues with the Fighting Sioux moniker, NCAA rules would prohibit UND from hosting postseason games. Wetzel says that could pose problems as UND tries to join the Big Sky Conference this summer.
“I think that UND is going to be able to join the conference,” Wetzel said. “The question is whether or not it will be able to stay because a conference member that can’t host postseason tournament games may not have a very good long-term future as a conference member.”
The statewide referendum won’t necessarily put an end to the debate. The same group that gathered signatures for that petition is also working on a campaign for an amendment to the state constitution that would mandate the use of “Fighting Sioux.” That’s not to mention other pending lawsuits.
“One of the rationales for the constitutional amendment initiative being circulated is that this would settle it,” Wetzel said. “I think it’s fair to say people are getting a little sick of this issue.”