Sioux group favors keeping nickname

BISMARCK, N.D. -- A group of American Indians who want the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname hope to put the issue to voters, their lawyer said Thursday.

Members of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe who back the nickname say they plan to gather signatures to try to amend the state's constitution to require that the school use the moniker. Their lawyer, Reed Soderstrom, said he hoped such a move would end arguments about the nickname "once and for all."

The school wants to shed its 81-year-old nickname after a drawn-out dispute with the NCAA, which says the name and the school's American Indian logo are offensive to Native Americans. North Dakota lawmakers voted earlier this month to allow UND to get rid of the moniker, overturning a last-ditch attempt in March by the Legislature. That maneuvering had caused scheduling headaches for UND teams and threatened its bid to join the Big Sky Conference as it transitions from Division II to Division I sports.

The NCAA has allowed some schools to keep their nicknames by getting permission from tribes. In North Dakota, the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe has endorsed the Fighting Sioux nickname, but the Standing Rock Sioux's tribal council has refused.

Soderstrom said Spirit Lake Sioux backers of the nickname want to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot through an initiative process. Supporters would need signatures from almost 27,000 North Dakota voters by Aug. 8 to win a spot on the November 2012 ballot. The measure would become an amendment to the state constitution if a majority of voters support it.

"Once it's in the constitution, if the people want it, it will be an issue no more," Soderstrom said. "It will be not quite etched in stone, but almost."

Soderstrom represents a group of Spirit Lake tribal members who have filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, in an attempt to invalidate its policy against member colleges using American Indian nicknames and logos for their sports teams.

Since August, the NCAA has banned UND from hosting postseason tournaments and said the school's athletes may not wear uniforms with the nickname or logo during postseason play.

The NCAA in 2005 placed UND on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots that it found objectionable, and UND was the last holdout on that list.

UND and the state's Board of Higher Education have supported retiring the nickname and logo, saying they were a potential roadblock to UND's membership in the Big Sky Conference, which it hopes to join next year.

The university's president, Robert Kelley, declined comment on the possible initiative Thursday. Kelley was attending a Board of Higher Education meeting at Valley City State University.

Grant Shaft, president of the Board of Higher Education, said the board planned to invite attorney general Wayne Stenehjem to speak about the status of lawsuits involving the nickname.

Aside from the Spirit Lake case, a lawsuit filed by a group of American Indian students at UND contends the nickname and logo have created a campus environment that is hostile to them.

Should North Dakota voters approve a constitutional amendment that requires UND to use the Fighting Sioux nickname, it could be removed only by another statewide vote. That is a big advantage over a state law, which can be changed by the Legislature alone, Soderstrom said.

"This is an important issue. All the people, I think, should have a say in it, especially those on Standing Rock who never got to vote and wanted to," Soderstrom said.