« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Jane Ahlin, Published January 30 2011

Ahlin: Legislature’s resurrection of logo debate is a mistake

As a University of North Dakota graduate with wonderful memories of my college years, I’ve found the resurrected controversy over the “Fighting Sioux” moniker puzzling. That the North Dakota Legislature would insert itself at a time when the controversy had cooled and the drawn-out process for change was reaching completion seems more than unwise; frankly, it’s embarrassing.

Unsettling the legally settled arguments over the nickname and logo, at best, promises long-lasting lawsuits that interfere with the schedules of UND sports teams and put UND in a defensive/

apologetic position among its peers; at worst, it undermines the integrity of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education and the academic advancement of a fine university that is doing very well under the leadership of its new president.

Let’s revisit the North Dakota Supreme Court ruling as reported by Chuck Haga for the Grand Forks Herald last April when it was released. The court said the following:

“We conclude the plain and unambiguous language of the settlement agreement, when construed as a whole and in conjunction with the Board’s constitutional and statutory authority, does not require the Board or UND to continue using the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo until November 30, 2010.”

Note the phrase “the Board’s constitutional and statutory authority.” The ruling involved an injunction some members of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe had requested, but as part of the ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed the broad authority of the Board of Higher Education to deal with the “Fighting Sioux” controversy. More recently, the attorney general of North Dakota expressed doubts that any of the three bills proposed this session by legislators to make the Sioux moniker state law would supersede the board’s constitutionally granted authority.

In other words, legislators cannot help but know how slim their chances are of prevailing. So what is the point? Do they think they can pressure the board to change its mind? (How much would it cost North Dakota taxpayers to take the NCAA to court? How unlikely is it that even millions spent would result in a win? Consider how many scholarships could be granted with that kind of money.)

Reported by Haga for the Herald last week, Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, House majority leader and author of one of the bills said, “This is North Dakota history” in referring to a “1969 ceremony involving several elders from Standing Rock who made former UND President George Starcher an honorary chief and authorized the use of the nickname.” (The Standing Rock Tribal Council has refused to approve the ongoing use of the “Fighting Sioux” moniker.)

Interestingly, I have a mental image from that era of Starcher in Indian headdress; however, since I can’t find an actual picture in my memorabilia, it may be a false memory. In fact, the big event Carlson refers to is not mentioned in the 1969 or 1970 UND yearbooks. There isn’t a mention of one thing to do with Indian students in those editions, although the Indian student association had its start in 1969. Looking back, I did find a few pictures of students in faux Indian dress in the 1968 yearbook. A white male student identified as “Sammy Sioux” was shown presiding over a contest during Homecoming week to choose “Sally Squaw” from a group of fraternity guys dressed like Indian maidens. Indeed, a few years later, it was the cartoon caricature of “Sammy Sioux” that led to the first demands by Indian students to retire the moniker.

That, too, is North Dakota history.

The university has worked hard since the 1970s to make Indian heritage and culture important to university life, including programs for Indian students and a well-regarded Indian studies major. As a proud alum, I know the changes weren’t made in order to keep a moniker. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation suggests otherwise.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum’s commentary page.