FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Voters are casting ballots Tuesday to resolve a bitter dispute over whether the University of North Dakota should save or scrap its Fighting Sioux nickname, even as supporters of the moniker promised to resume the battle this fall regardless of the outcome.
The issue has been simmering on the campus for decades but boiled over seven years ago when UND was placed on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames the NCAA deemed hostile and abusive. Those colleges were told to dump the names or risk sanctions against their athletic teams.
Voters in Tuesday’s North Dakota primary are being asked whether to uphold or reject the Legislature’s repeal of a state law requiring the school to continue using the nickname and American Indian head logo. A “yes” vote seemingly would retire the nickname, but even that may be temporary.
As its members urged state residents on Monday to vote to keep the name, a group that calls itself the Committee for Understanding and Respect circulated petitions for a second referendum. That measure would change the state constitution to declare UND forever be known as the Fighting Sioux.
“Our second phase, and our ultimate goal, is the November ballot,” the group said in a statement.
It’s an issue that divides the state, sports fans, alumni and even area tribes. Federal lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Indians on both sides of the dispute.
At the Bismarck Civic Center early Tuesday, 33-year-old Dawn Kopp — a graduate of North Dakota State University in Fargo — voted to dump the nickname.
“Even though I went to a rival school, I don’t want UND to lose their chance of competing,” she said.
Brian Saylor, 37, agreed.
“I supported the UND nickname for a long time, but now it’s time to move on,” he said.
Sean Johnson, spokesman for the nickname supporters, said his group will “keep plugging away” on the second referendum no matter what happens during Tuesday’s primary. He predicted the vote would be close.
Some schools quickly removed their American Indian-themed nicknames when faced with NCAA pressure, and others such as Florida State survived the edict by getting approval from namesake tribes. However, there was no such consensus among tribal leaders in North Dakota.
No nickname backers have held out as long as Fighting Sioux boosters, though school officials long have given up the fight and in fact are promoting a vote to retire the name.
Tim O’Keefe, executive vice president and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, led a tour of North Dakota last week that included several of the school’s coaches, who pleaded for voters to finally put the issue to rest.
“I think that over the course of time our case has gotten stronger and stronger,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “Listening to the coaches last week tell the story about the reality of how they are being impacted by scheduling and recruiting … the facts are the facts.”
The law forcing the school to use the name and logo was approved in March 2011 but was repealed in a special session after NCAA representatives told state officials that it would not budge on sanctions. Mr. Johnson’s group then collected the necessary signatures for the ballot measure.
Mr. O’Keefe said Mr. Johnson’s group should drop the second petition drive and come together with “the other passionate loyal supporters” of UND.
That sentiment didn’t sway Mike Kramer, 57, of Bismarck.
“I’m not a UND graduate, but I’m a UND hockey fanatic. I’ve been following since 1959, since they won their first national championship as the ‘Sioux,’” he said. “I just don’t like the idea of being forced to change the name.”
The university first adopted Sioux as its nickname in 1930; the ‘Fighting‘ portion wasn’t added until the 1960s.
The primary election was giving North Dakota residents exactly what the group has pushed for — an opportunity to weigh in, Mr. O’Keefe said. He predicted a “resounding” answer.
“To continue down a path after that would be nothing but malicious content toward the University of North Dakota, its student-athletes and its programs,” he said.
Associated Press writer James MacPherson contributed from Bismarck.