GRAND FORKS, N.D.
Brett Potas is so angry the University of North Dakota may drop its Fighting Sioux nickname that he’s canceled his season hockey tickets and says he won’t give his alma mater another dime.
“They tried to get me to think about it. I said that I’ve been thinking about it for years,” Potas said. He says he doesn’t want to be associated with a university that takes a politically correct position.
Lucy Ganje, an art professor who led protests against the name, said the school not only should drop its nickname and Indian head logo, it should also apologize to the Sioux tribes and the school’s American Indian students.
The two views illustrate the debate over the nickname that has nagged the school for years and could finally be resolved this fall. Unless the school gets the support of the state’s two Sioux tribes by Oct. 1, which appears unlikely, the state Board of Higher Education says it must drop the nickname.
“One thing’s for sure, the feelings run deep,” athletic director Brian Faison said. “I’m sure there are other places where emotion has been attached to the logo, but here there’s an intensity I’ve never experienced any place else.”
UND teams have been known as the Fighting Sioux since 1930. Those who support the name echo the argument made by fans of other teams with American Indian mascots that it is part of the school’s heritage and is a sign of respect that honors American Indians’ proud traditions.
But critics argue that naming sports teams after American Indians, a historically disenfranchised race of people, is demeaning, and even racist, and that the practice should stop because many tribes oppose it.
Just this month, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to look into whether the Washington Redskins’ name defames American Indians. A lower court ruled in favor of the NFL team.
The NCAA in 2005 listed 18 schools with American Indian mascots and images that it considered “hostile and abusive,” and banned them from postseason play pending name changes. William and Mary was added in 2006. Some schools, like Florida State University (Seminoles) and the University of Utah (Utes), were allowed to keep their nicknames by getting permission from local tribes.
But most changed their nicknames, leaving UND as the lone holdout.
The state of North Dakota sued to block the NCAA stipulation, but it agreed in a 2007 settlement that the school would drop the name by 2010 unless it got the approval from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes. The Spirit Lake tribal council voted last week to allow the school to remain the Fighting Sioux, but the Standing Rock council has refused to give its approval.
UND hasn’t settled on a new nickname should it abandon its Fighting Sioux moniker, Faison said. Any change would cost the school not only the support of some students, faculty and alumni, but in dollars as well.
When the university debated a nickname change in 2001, the late Ralph Engelstad, a former UND goalie who donated $100 million for the construction of an arena that bears his name, threatened to withhold funding if the nickname was changed. He died a year later, but not before helping get thousands of granite and metal Indian head logos put up throughout the building. Many would have to be removed a job arena manager Jody Hodgson said would cost about $1 million.
And a change would mean the end of one of the best-selling hockey jerseys in the country, said Joe Sheeley, who works for the Licensing Resource Group, the company that handles UND’s licensing program. He declined to give exact figures, but said sales of the Sioux jersey have increased in each of the last five years.
“If it’s not the No. 1 seller in the hockey world, it definitely holds its own against the big-time programs,” Sheeley said.
Faison said switching nicknames and logos would be “costly,” but he declined to elaborate.
Other schools may force the university’s hand. The University of Minnesota, which would be a convenient Division I opponent because of its proximity, said it would only schedule games against UND in one sport, hockey, if UND kept the Fighting Sioux name. Other schools have said they’re reviewing their policies.
“The Minnesota thing is really a problem for a lot of our sports,” Faison said.
Some UND students and graduates, including one very well-known former student, have urged the school to adopt a new nickname. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, returning to his alma mater to accept an honorary degree last year, urged UND to drop the name, saying the change could be made gracefully.
Students Sarah Molde, Chelsey Hill and Alison Spicer, three seniors studying social work, said they believe students will wear Fighting Sioux gear even if the name is changed. All of them want to see the logo stay.
“I’m one of them who is sick of the argument, I’m not going to lie,” said Molde, from Bemidji, Minn. “If I could just sweep it under the rug, I would.”