By MONICA DAVEY
Published: December 8, 2009
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Sometime soon, the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota were to be no more, another collegiate nickname dropped after being deemed hostile and abusive to American Indians.
Except that some members of the Spirit Lake Tribe, one of two groups of Sioux in the state, say they consider the nickname an honor and worry that abandoning it would send them one step closer to obscurity.
“When you hear them announce the name at the start of a hockey game, it gives you goose bumps,” said Frank Black Cloud, a tribal member. “They are putting us up on a pinnacle.”
And so, in a legal standoff that has turned some preconceptions upside down, North Dakota’s top state lawyers will be in court on Wednesday to oppose members of the Spirit Lake Tribe who have sued to preserve the Fighting Sioux name and logo, an image of an Indian in profile, feathers draping down.
The battle here, like some others at the 20 or so institutions urged by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to drop their mascots, names or images, has been painful and drawn out. The University of North Dakota is the only one still sorting the matter out, an N.C.A.A. spokesman said, and it is creating rifts on this campus of 13,000 students, among its web of alumni that run through nearly every realm in North Dakota, and, especially, among American Indians here.
All around, harsh new accusations are flying. The members from Spirit Lake behind the lawsuit assert that many of the American Indians opposed to the Fighting Sioux nickname are simply from tribes other than the Sioux, and are jealous of all the recognition. (Opponents call this absurd.)
Some against the name claim that the operators of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the gleaming hockey stadium built by a particularly successful alumnus for more than $100 million — and contains 2,400 images of the logo — are secretly behind the lawsuit, hoping to block the nickname from being abandoned. (False, the Spirit Lake members and hockey stadium officials say.)
“Still, to do what they’re doing, you’re more or less selling out,” said Frank Sage, a Navajo and one of about 400 American Indian students at the university and one who says he finds the Fighting Sioux imagery hurtful and harmful. “They’re just being used.”
The lawsuit, filed last month by eight members of the Spirit Lake Tribe, is tangled, and grows out of a similarly tangled series of events that began in 2005, when the N.C.A.A. warned the University of North Dakota and 17 other colleges to change their nicknames and mascots if they wished to show the images at N.C.A.A.-controlled championships or to host such events. (Two other institutions were later added, according to the N.C.A.A.)
Since then, some colleges changed their logos, others sought and received permission from local tribes to keep them, and a few resolved the matter in other ways.
But the University of North Dakota is still at it. The state’s Board of Higher Education and the university sued the N.C.A.A. to preserve the nickname and logo, and in 2007 reached a settlement that let it keep them if the Sioux tribal councils in the state — at Spirit Lake and Standing Rock — agreed to the idea by the end of November 2010.
But some university officials said they began worrying that the debate was leading other institutions to avoid competing against them in sports. Robert Kelley, the university’s president, has taken no position on the nickname but said he found himself being asked about it almost constantly — at the supermarket, in meetings of the state’s Congressional delegation — and wanted to ensure that the debate did not eclipse the university’s academic focus.
Politics on the reservations have also turned tense. In September, the tribal council in Spirit Lake, 100 miles west of Grand Forks, voted to allow the name. But at Standing Rock, more than 300 miles southwest of here, a past tribal chairman was deeply opposed, and a new chairman brought no clear answer, noting in a letter to state officials this fall that he would prefer an “open dialogue as opposed to a stipulated arrangement under deadline.”
By then, the Board of Higher Education, which sets policy for public universities, concluded that it was time to give up. The board voted to prepare to “retire” the nickname if a deal was not struck with Standing Rock by the end of October, but a few days after the deadline, the group from Spirit Lake secured a temporary restraining order against the plan. Patrick R. Morley, a lawyer for the group, argues that the university, under its settlement with the N.C.A.A., must at least wait until next November for an answer from Standing Rock.
And some at Spirit Lake argue that they — not students — should have the ultimate say on the matter, while some at the university say the backlash from the debate is showing up here, on campus, not on Indian land.
“We’re talking tears and heartbreak here for our students,” said Linda Neuerburg, assistant director of American Indian Student Services at the university, which has 29 programs for American Indians. Leaders at the American Indian Center held up T-shirts they have collected showing images of Indians and bison (the nickname of the rival North Dakota State University teams) in vulgar poses. They described the insult of people walking on a large logo of the Indian face on the floor of the hockey stadium.
But those suing said they were proud of the nickname.
“I am full blood and I grew up on this reservation,” said Eunice Davidson, 57, who wore a Fighting Sioux sweatshirt on a recent afternoon. “I have to tell you, I am very, very honored that they would use the name.”
On Wednesday, the statewill argue against the Spirit Lake members’ restraining order, raising questions about their legal standing, said Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota’s attorney general. This puts him, too, in an unlikely spot: Mr. Stenehjem, an alumnus of the university who, like many other political leaders here, has been supportive of the nickname, filed the initial suit against the N.C.A.A. to protect the name. But if the Board of Higher Education wants to be rid of it now, he said, that is its authority.
Still, Frank Black Cloud, the Spirit Lake member, said an end to the nickname would not soothe relations between white North Dakotans and American Indians.
“If you think there are some tensions at the university before, just think what repercussions there will be for Indians then,” Mr. Black Cloud said. “You are going to kick us back a century.”