Commentary

A team-name fight like no other

Years-long dispute over Fighting Sioux name, logo now puts games at stake

Updated: March 7, 2012, 3:54 PM ET
By Paula Lavigne | ESPN.com

University of North Dakota Fighting SiouxUniversity of North DakotaA dispute over the North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname and logo has lasted for several years and could cause a forfeit in a postseason game.

The University of North Dakota women's hockey team is preparing for its first NCAA national tournament appearance amid the utmost of uncertainty, its postseason fate at the moment not hinging on preparation, its opponent or any one star player.

No, the Fighting Sioux's tournament run, which begins Saturday in Minneapolis, could depend solely on university administrators, who must decide whether to risk a forfeit at the hands of the NCAA by allowing their players to take the ice in uniforms bearing their team nickname and logo or break state law, which says the university must use the Fighting Sioux name and logo.

"We've got maybe a thin line to walk, and we have to figure out what that thin line is," said university spokesman Peter Johnson. "We're going to try hard to find a way through that line."

Ever since the NCAA policy against using Native American nicknames, logos and mascots was enacted seven years ago, people have been trying hard to walk the right line. But the right line in this case is exceedingly complex, as the issue has intricacies not seen in the dozens of other Native American nickname, mascot and logo battles that have occurred in sports the past 30 years. In addition to the university being caught between the NCAA and its own state legislature, a group of Sioux Indians has accused the NCAA of being hostile, discriminatory and racist for banning the nickname and logo -- the exact same charges the NCAA uses as reasons the name should be abolished in all cases by the university.

[+] EnlargeFighting Sioux Logo
AP PhotoNorth Dakota's controversial Fighting Sioux logo.

It could all come to a head this weekend, because the NCAA notified the university in a letter last week that wearing the logo during any postseason play would result in a forfeit. The University of Iowa has also decided not to invite North Dakota to an April track meet because of its use of the Fighting Sioux name.

But ending the dispute is not as simple as stopping use of the logo and name; the university agrees with the NCAA and would willingly comply immediately, removing any forfeit threat. Yet last year, the state legislature passed a law requiring the university to continue using the name and logo. And even though lawmakers repealed the law a few months later, the repeal didn't last long, because a group of Sioux Indians filed petitions to force a June vote on the matter, which had the effect of nullifying the repeal. Further, the group filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, saying the removal of the name and logo would be hostile, discriminatory and racist.

"It's like they're trying to abolish Native Americans," said Frank Black Cloud. He lives on the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation, about 90 miles from the campus, where he says Fighting Sioux apparel is popular. He owns a pair of pajamas with the university's logo. Black Cloud said getting rid of the Fighting Sioux "would be the most hurtful thing that anyone could do to the University of North Dakota and these two tribes. You're talking about ripping the heart out of an institution."

The disagreement has led to a web of legislation and litigation involving the university, the state legislature, the NCAA, the North Dakota secretary of state, and even a group of Native American students who have filed a lawsuit against the state of North Dakota and university saying the name is offensive. Sioux tribes -- even members within the same tribe -- also disagree on the issue.

"I think it's archaic. I think it perpetuates stereotypes," said graduate student Amber Annis, a member of a Sioux tribe from South Dakota. "It's just distressing to see that image everywhere on the campus, to see 'Sioux' plastered across someone's pants, or butt or shoes or hat or whatever ... It's a shame for anyone to say our traditions and culture will die because the nickname and logo are taken away."

Some schools allowed exceptions by NCAA

Even though several national Native American organizations have wholesale condemned the use of such logos and mascots by all schools, the NCAA has allowed exceptions to its 2005 policy on a case-by-case basis. Some examples of universities that have been allowed to keep their Native American references with tribal permission include the Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas and Utah Utes. Illinois was allowed to continue using the "Fighting Illini" nickname but dropped the use of the logo and mascot. According to the NCAA, the only other university still using a Native American nickname in violation of the policy is Alcorn State University, whose teams are known as the Braves.

The Fighting Sioux dispute was nearly resolved in 2007, when a settlement in a lawsuit the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education filed against the NCAA allowed the university to keep the name and avoid the postseason punishment. But the settlement required the university to get the "clear and affirmative support" in writing within three years to use the Fighting Sioux from both Sioux tribes headquartered in North Dakota, which includes the Spirit Lake tribe and the Standing Rock tribe, which straddles the border with South Dakota.

In April 2009, about 67 percent of the tribe at the Spirit Lake reservation voted in favor of the name, but in June 2010 a majority of the Standing Rock tribal council decided not to support the name, without putting it to a vote of the tribe.

"Outside the Lines" tried to reach tribal chairman Charles Murphy, and other members of the Standing Rock board who were opposed to the nickname, but none of them responded to repeated voice mail messages or emails.

Archie Fool Bear, a member of the Standing Rock tribe and a party to the lawsuit against the NCAA, said the tribe ignored a petition with signatures of more than 1,000 members in North Dakota to allow a vote on the issue. He also points out that the Standing Rock tribe allowed the university to use the Sioux name as part of a sacred pipe ceremony in 1969, which he said should trump any modern-day court settlement.

Fool Bear, whose son attends UND, said he's proud when he sees the name on campus and used in videos played before sporting events.

"The Sioux people were always known for being tremendous fighters," he said, referencing the Sioux's role in the victory over Lt. Col. George Custer and the U.S. Army at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn.

A quick thought of taking on the NCAA

In this modern-day fight, the Sioux who support use of the name appealed to the government for help when the university -- after not getting both tribes' formal approval -- decided to stop using the Fighting Sioux name in 2010.

State Rep. Al Carlson, a Republican from Fargo, sponsored a bill in January 2011 that would make it a law for the University of North Dakota to use the Fighting Sioux nickname and would consider filing an anti-trust claim against the NCAA if it penalized North Dakota teams as a result.

[+] EnlargeJesse Taken Alive
AP Photo/Dale WetzelJesse Taken Alive, a tribal councilman for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, speaks last year in the North Dakota Capitol about legislation that would give the University of North Dakota permission to retire its Fighting Sioux nickname.

The law passed in March 2011, but was repealed by the same legislature just eight months later after the NCAA invited the governor, legislative leaders and university representatives to a meeting in Indianapolis in August.

"I think it was fair to say that everybody who came away from that meeting felt that the NCAA was not going to change its position and that we would face sanctions that would have a harmful effect on our university," said university spokesman Peter Johnson.

Fighting Sioux supporters and members of the Spirit Lake tribe asked to participate in that meeting but the NCAA declined.

"We're sovereign nations. If somebody is going to make a decision about something that is dear to us, we should be the ones to make that decision," Black Cloud said. "It's like Russia and Spain talking about the fate of Italy, and Italy doesn't have a say in it."

Rep. Carlson -- who did not support the repeal -- said he also believes the NCAA is overstepping its bounds, adding that North Dakota was the only university required to get two tribes' permission to keep using its Native American name.

"I think they're coming in and dictating from above on something the people don't really want to have happen," he said. "Here are the people who are supposedly being discriminated against, and they didn't want the name to go away."

NCAA officials involved in the negotiations declined to answer any questions about the Fighting Sioux issue, and NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuh would only say, "Our policy is in place. There is nothing more to say."

'We were just North Dakota'

In December, in accord with the NCAA agreement, the university continued with the transition away from the logo. The logo -- an image of a Sioux warrior -- was removed from the wall in a basketball court. The women's hockey team started wearing new uniforms sans logo. And announcers stopped referring to the Fighting Sioux during games.

But the Sioux who support the name were not done with their fight. They collected enough signatures on a petition to ask that the original law be reinstated and brought to a statewide vote. Responses to the petition are due this week.

"From December until Feb. 9, we were not the Fighting Sioux. We were just North Dakota," Johnson said. At that point, the petition essentially suspended the repeal and mandated the law passed last spring stand until a vote in June.

[+] EnlargeSioux new Uniform
University of North DakotaThe North Dakota women's hockey team could wear this style of uniform on Saturday, one that does not use the Fighting Sioux name or logo.

Efforts to remove the logo stopped, the women's hockey team went back to wearing its old uniforms, and announcers resumed saying, "Here come the North Dakota Fighting Sioux."

One move that might derail the vote is an action by the state board of high education -- in its response to the petition to repeal the law -- to challenge the constitutionality of the law as originally passed. The North Dakota Supreme Court could decide on that issue in the next month or so.

Rep. Carlson said he hopes the vote will go through because there are voting precincts that align with the boundaries of both reservations, which he said could be an accurate gauge of where tribal members really stand on the name.

But Annis, and other Native American students who filed the lawsuit detailing examples of racially motivated harassment, say that sort of thinking still discounts the experience of what it's like to live with the name and logo day after day on a campus where they can't dodge the debate and where opposing teams shout "Sioux suck" or utter racist chants at sporting events.

"It's easy to say, 'Yes, it's an honor and they've done nothing but good things for us,' but when you're right in the middle of it, you'll see that's not the way it is," Annis said. "It causes a rift between native people."

Johnson said it's also been a big distraction for the athletic teams who just want to get on with their games.

"We want to provide the best opportunity for our student athletes to participate, making sure they have the opportunities that they've earned," he said.

As for the women's hockey team's Saturday game, Johnson said it's still unclear what the university is going to do, although allowing the team to wear its new logo-free uniforms is a possibility. He said he isn't sure if switching to those uniforms for tournament play would violate state law -- and what legal ramifications the university would face if it did.

The university has set up a blog to keep people updated on the latest Fighting Sioux issues.

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at paula.lavigne@espn.com.