A breakdown of the battle: How university's Fighting Sioux nickname landed on ND ballot

  • Article by: Associated Press
  • Updated: June 12, 2012 - 5:16 PM

FARGO, N.D. - The history:

The University of North Dakota debuted the "Sioux" part of its nickname more than 80 years ago. UND's student newspaper on Oct. 3, 1930, hyped the change with a front-page headline reading: "'Sioux' replaces `Flickertail' as Captain of University Sports Teams." Flickertail, the previous nickname, referred to a type of ground gopher. Apparently, school officials decided the rodent didn't instill appropriate fear in opponents.

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But why "Sioux"?

Before the Dakotas became states, they were part of the Sioux Nation. As gold helped push the population farther west, UND was founded in 1883 in the Dakota Territory. (North Dakota became a state six years later.) The term Sioux isn't without its own history — it's part of an Ojibwa-French pejorative term meaning "snakes" — but in 1930 it was accepted as a nod to the area's Native American history. In a 1969 pipe ceremony on the UND campus, some representatives from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake tribes reportedly gave the university permanent rights to use the nickname.

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And "Fighting"?

That part didn't come along until the 1960s, under longtime Athletic Information Director Lee Bohnet, who died in 1999. Patricia Bohnet, his daughter, wrote in May 2011 that she didn't know how her father would feel about the school losing its nickname, but she knew he would "be on the side of the student athletes."

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The hubbub:

The NCAA in 2005 declared UND's nickname — as well at least 18 other Indian-inspired nicknames at schools nationwide — as abusive and hostile to American Indians. Many schools swapped nicknames outright. Some got permission from namesake tribes to keep the nicknames. UND's battle is unlike any other, however, prompting lawsuits, tribal resolutions, state laws and, now, a public vote.

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Who wants the nickname to stay?

Some fans and alumni say the nickname isn't meant to be derogatory, and is respectful toward American Indians. It's part of the school's history, they say, and should be allowed to stand. Backers include some Native Americans. Members of the Spirit Lake Tribe sued the NCAA last November in an attempt to keep the nickname. The suit was filed on behalf of about 1,000 petitioners who say that losing the Sioux name means losing the ties between tribes and the university. A judge tossed out the federal suit in May.

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Who wants it gone?

There's no consensus on the matter among American Indians, even within Spirit Lake. Some agree with the NCAA and find the nickname offensive. A group of Native American students filed a federal lawsuit to stop its use. University officials also have made a recent push asking that voters allow the nickname to be retired. Even men's hockey coach Dave Hakstol, who had been a staunch nickname supporter, has said it's time to move on.

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What happens if the measure passes?

It means the end of the battle ... maybe. A group of nickname supporters has vowed to try to get the nickname built in to the state's constitution and spent the weekend gathering signatures to put the matter on November's ballot.

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And if it fails?

Then the fight definitely continues. The NCAA has made it clear it will not allow universities with what it deems as hostile or abusive nicknames or imagery to host playoff rounds. Athletics officials say that makes scheduling difficult. And some coaches say it's already affecting the teams' ability to recruit players.

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Bottom line:

Tuesday's election marks the first time that North Dakotans as a whole get to say what they want. But it might not be the last.

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