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Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald , Published December 19 2011

Wrong fight for NCAA? Writer on Time.com says UND nickname ‘harmless,’ even ‘positive’

GRAND FORKS - The long and continuing fight over UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname has caught the attention of Time.com, which reports this week on the NCAA’s campaign against the use of American Indian nicknames and “the puzzling, quite unique case of North Dakota.”

It’s the latest example of national media head-scratching, analysis and commentary concerning the Fighting Sioux story, which may or may not be ending. UND is actively transitioning away from the nickname and logo, but that could be affected by pending federal lawsuits, a proposed referendum and a parallel initiated measure that would ask the people to enshrine the nickname in North Dakota’s Constitution.

After recounting the history of the dispute, including the recent legislative and judicial maneuverings, writer Sean Gregory notes that the NCAA “has plenty of issues to worry about, most importantly melding academics and athletics.”

He asks, “Isn’t the organization picking the wrong fight here?”

Many college and pro sports teams “have taken heat for caricaturing Native Americans with their nicknames and mascots,” he writes. “Sometimes, teams do the right thing. In 1994, for example, St. John’s University changed its name from the Redmen to the Red Storm.

“At other times, they’ve acted irresponsibly. We still have the Washington Redskins, and the Cleveland Indians haven’t scrubbed Chief Wahoo — a cartoonish representation of Native Americans — off their hats.”

In some cases, namesake tribes have given their blessing to use of a name, as with the Florida State Seminoles. But UND and its Sioux nickname seem to stand apart, Gregory writes.

“On the surface, this name seems harmless, and even a positive for the Sioux nation,” he writes. “The school’s logo is not cartoonish, and even classy in its simplicity: a headshot of (a) stern-looking Sioux warrior. UND has no idiotic mascot who is unflattering to Native Americans.”

Standing Rock didn’t get to vote

But the NCAA has stood firm, Gregory notes, and that rankles Sioux supporters of the Fighting Sioux tradition.

“Why should the NCAA come in and tell us that we should be offended?” asks Frank Black Cloud, spokesman for Spirit Lake’s pro-nickname Committee for Understanding and Respect. “It makes no sense to us.”

The Time.com piece also quotes John Chaske, a Spirit Lake elder.

“UND has allowed us to participate and have input on some of the Indian programs they have developed,” he said. “The school deserves to use our name. We should take pride in that. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

And from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, longtime nickname champion Archie Fool Bear faults the Tribal Council — which opposes the nickname — for not scheduling a reservation-wide vote. Spirit Lake voted in 2009, approving UND’s use of the name by a 2-1 margin.

“Aw man, it’s not right for people not to have a say,” Fool Bear told Time.com.

Gregory said he sought an interview with Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Charlie Murphy, but his calls were not returned.

Gregory notes that other Native American tribal councils, Sioux outside North Dakota as well as other tribes, have adopted resolutions opposing the Fighting Sioux name and logo. Those include North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

“We, as tribal members and Sioux, we don’t tell other tribes what to do,” Black Cloud says in the article. “We would expect that same respect from them as well.”

As to arguments advanced by nickname opponents that the Sioux logo has been defaced and used inappropriately by some, including supporters of rival schools, Black Cloud said those were “isolated incidents that people like to exploit to say that’s (the) norm.” In almost all occasions, he said, “the name is held in high respect and high regard.”

NCAA leaders are still not talking

Like Murphy, NCAA President Mark Emmert and Vice President Bernard Franklin have been reluctant to talk with reporters about the Sioux nickname and NCAA policy, and Gregory had no better luck. NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson provided the association’s usual succinct statement in an email:

“The settlement between the NCAA and the university gave the university three years to obtain agreement from the tribes. That did not occur. The policy does not require a change in nickname or logo. That is a university decision. But without a change, the university cannot host a championship or display the nickname or logo at a championship.”

UND spokesman Peter Johnson responded to Gregory’s inquiries with a measured statement:

“The directive from the State Board of Higher Education is to transition away from the nickname and logo,” Johnson said. “At this point in time, that’s the best thing for our athletic programs.”