BISMARCK, N.D. — Gov. Jack Dalrymple asked North Dakota lawmakers Monday to reverse a decision they made eight months earlier and allow the University of North Dakota to drop its Fighting Sioux athletics nickname.
Should the Legislature go along, the university and the Board of Higher Education would be free to carry out earlier plans to retire the nickname and a related logo that features the profile of an American Indian warrior.
The NCAA considers both offensive to American Indians, and has encouraged schools to decline to schedule UND as long as the nickname and logo are kept.
Dalrymple led a delegation of legislative and university leaders to the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis in August to make a final plea that UND be allowed to keep its nickname and logo without suffering NCAA sanctions. The NCAA declined.
“I believe it was worth the effort to do everything we could to keep the university’s proud nickname,” Dalrymple said in his Monday speech to lawmakers. “But now, with the University of North Dakota facing harm to its student athletes, and to all students, it is time to move forward.”
Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, has introduced a bill to reverse lawmakers’ earlier directive.
At a hearing Monday on the measure, the university’s athletics director, Brian Faison, said keeping the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo has already caused scheduling difficulties and would jeopardize the school’s plans to join the Big Sky Conference in July.
UND now belongs to the Great West Conference. The switch is important, Faison said, because Great West football is ending after this year, and sports in the Big Sky league have automatic qualifiers for NCAA postseason tournaments.
Should the Big Sky refuse UND entry, the school may end up as an independent, Faison said.
“I do not believe we can exist as an … independent,” he said “There are just not enough teams to play at the end of the day.”
The Big Sky Conference accepted UND when the nickname and logo dispute was thought to have been settled. But it was revived by the Legislature in the spring.
The NCAA imbroglio dates to 2005, when the association told more than a dozen schools, including UND, that their team nicknames were “hostile and abusive” to American Indians and schools that insisted on keeping them would be sanctioned.
UND filed a lawsuit challenging how the association had reached its decision. In an October 2007 settlement, the university agreed to retire its nickname and logo if it could not get approval from North Dakota’s two largest Sioux tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux and the Spirit Lake Sioux, for their continued use.
The Spirit Lake Sioux tribe endorsed the nickname in a subsequent referendum, but the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council declined to support it or call a reservation referendum on the question.
Robert Kelley, UND’s president, said he had spent about half his time as president on the nickname and logo issue since taking the job in 2008. In the last year, the issue has demanded almost three-quarters of his time, Kelley said.
Repealing the law would “support our student athletes by removing sanctions (and) other restrictions that complicate the future of UND athletics,” Kelley said.
Some Spirit Lake tribal members have filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, alleging its efforts to prod UND into dropping the nickname violates their rights.
“It’s about principle, now. It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about civil rights, religious freedoms and the First Amendment,” said Frank Black Cloud, of Fort Totten, a Spirit Lake tribal member and nickname supporter.
Another Spirit Lake tribal member who opposes the nickname, Erich Longie, said foes won’t give up.
”We know tribal councils come and go. We are going to stay and we are going to stay at it,” Longie said. “We are going to get that name changed.”