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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published May 15 2012

Majority in poll: Retire Fighting Sioux nickname

©Copyright 2012

Forum Communications Co.

GRAND FORKS – A month before the electoral showdown over the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname, a new statewide poll shows likely voters inclined toward allowing the university to retire the historic name and logo.

Of 500 people surveyed who said they are extremely, very or somewhat likely to vote in the June 12 North Dakota primary election, 56 percent said they would vote for Measure 4, which would allow UND to discontinue use of the Fighting Sioux nickname.

Republicans were about evenly divided on the measure, while Democrats and independents favored retirement of the nickname by significant margins. Two-thirds of likely voters age 18 to 30 were for keeping the name, but majorities in all other age groups said they would vote “yes,” allowing UND to drop it.

Retiring the nickname has majority support among likely voters in the state’s most populous urban center (69 percent in Grand Forks County, 67 percent in Cass County and 60 percent in Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck). But the reverse is true in Minot’s Ward County, where likely voters split 61 percent to 39 percent for keeping the name.

The poll was conducted over a mix of telephone land lines and cellphones May 3 through May 8 by Essman/Research of Des Moines, Iowa, for Forum Communications Co. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

‘Hurting UND’

The overall 56-44 split on Measure 4 suggests the campaign mounted by the UND Alumni Association and others to secure a “yes” vote may have had some traction. Of the likely voters who said they would vote “yes” to retire the name, 41 percent said it was because “keeping it would hurt the University of North Dakota athletics” when they were offered that and other possible reasons.

Leaders of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, backed by officials and coaches with the university’s athletics department, made that appeal earlier this month at news conferences in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck and Minot.

“Issue fatigue” is another factor apparently driving support for the measure. A third of those likely to vote “yes,” 33 percent, embraced this statement as the reason for their voting preference: “I just want it to end.”

Only 7 percent of those who said they would vote “yes” cited a belief that the nickname and logo are “offensive, hostile or abusive,” the allegation made by some American Indians at UND and elsewhere and by the NCAA, which refused to give the school a pass on a 2005 NCAA policy discouraging use of American Indian names and imagery.

UND and the state Board of Higher Education sued the NCAA but reached a settlement in 2007 that gave the university three years to win namesake approval from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes. Spirit Lake voters gave their assent in a 2009 referendum, but the Standing Rock Tribal Council maintained its longstanding opposition and declined to arrange a referendum.

Sioux County split

The Forum Communications Co. poll found a nearly even split among likely voters in Sioux County, which encompasses the North Dakota portion of the Standing Rock reservation. There, the margin was 52 percent for retirement of the name to 48 percent against, but the sample size – despite a special effort by the pollster – was not large enough to ensure statistical reliability.

Nickname supporters have argued, at the Legislature, in state and federal courts and lately on the campaign trail, that the tribes authorized UND’s use of the name in a solemn pipe ceremony conducted at the university in 1969.

But while that contested bit of history was cited by a few as their reason to vote for UND keeping the name, far more of the likely “no” voters – 44 percent – said their primary motivation was that the “NCAA should not dictate such matters to the state or the university.”

More than one in four, 27 percent, said they believe the nickname “shows pride in the state’s Indian heritage,” while 21 percent said they would vote “no” because the name reflects pride in the university or the state.

Three percent agreed with the statement, “I want to hurt University of North Dakota athletics,” as their reason for voting to keep the Fighting Sioux name.

That option was offered by pollsters because of persistent rumors that fervent North Dakota State University supporters might use the June 12 vote as a way to damage their longtime athletics rival.

However, a spokeswoman for Essman/Research said that none of the likely voters who chose that response was from Cass County, home of NDSU.

‘Not offensive’

Other likely voters volunteered their own reasons for voting “no,” including “the tribes gave permission to use that logo years ago,” the change would be costly and the name – part of the school’s history for so long – is not offensive.

Only in Sioux County, the Standing Rock reservation, did a plurality of nickname opponents – 46 percent – say their opposition was because they see the name and logo as “offensive, hostile and abusive.” Thirty-nine percent there said they “just want it to end.”

In Grand Forks County, 48 percent of those who said they would vote to retire the nickname said it was because “keeping it would hurt University athletics,” 31 percent said they want the debate to end, 19 percent said the name and logo “should not be mandated by law” and 10 percent said the name and logo are “hostile, offensive and abusive.”

In Cass County, the most-selected explanation to vote to retire the nickname was the damage it would do to UND athletics, with 46 percent of respondents who were pro-retirement saying it was the top reason. Those in Cass County who were in favor of keeping it were likeliest to pick “pride in the state’s Indian heritage” as their reasoning, with 37 percent citing that.


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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