Fargo, N.D. • Voters cast ballots Tuesday to resolve a bitter dispute over the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname, even as supporters of the moniker promised to resume the battle this fall regardless of the outcome.
The issue has been simmering for decades, dividing the state, sports fans, alumni and even area tribes. But it boiled over seven years ago when UND was placed on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames that the NCAA deemed hostile and abusive. Those colleges were told to dump the names or risk sanctions against their athletic teams.
Voters in Tuesday’s North Dakota primary are being asked whether to uphold or reject the Legislature’s repeal of a state law requiring the school to use the nickname and American Indian head logo.
Twenty-six-year-old Andrea Eagle Pipe, a criminal justice major at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, said she’s Sioux and doesn’t find the name offensive.
“A lot of people don’t like it, but I don’t have a problem with it,” she said, adding that her high school in Red Lodge, Mont., agreed to shed its 70-year-old Redskins nickname in 2011 because of NCAA pressure. She said she would vote to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname after classes Tuesday.
The university first adopted Sioux as its nickname in 1930; the ‘Fighting’ portion wasn’t added until the 1960s.
Interest in the vote was intense, with one election inspector saying she had not seen such a high early turnout outside of a presidential election in 20 years of service.
“The measures are bringing people to the polls,” said Margaret Swenson, at a tribal college in Bismarck.
A “yes” vote would retire the nickname, but perhaps only temporarily.
A group called the Committee for Understanding and Respect has been circulating petitions for a second referendum that would change the state constitution to declare UND forever be known as the Fighting Sioux.
“Our second phase, and our ultimate goal, is the November ballot,” the group said in a statement.
The NCAA says it will ban any schools with hostile or abusive nicknames or logos from hosting playoffs. The ban would make scheduling difficult and coaches say it would have a negative impact on a team’s ability to recruit.
At the Bismarck Civic Center early Tuesday, 33-year-old Dawn Kopp — a graduate of North Dakota State University in Fargo — voted to dump the nickname.
“Even though I went to a rival school, I don’t want UND to lose their chance of competing,” she said.
Brian Saylor, 37, agreed.
“I supported the UND nickname for a long time, but now it’s time to move on,” he said.
The issue has even divided families. Buck and GaeLynn Striebel and their son, Robert, stocked up on Fighting Sioux T-shirts on sale at a Bismarck sporting goods store Tuesday.
“They could be collector’s items,” a chuckling Buck Striebel said.
The North Dakota State University graduate said he would vote to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname, while his wife and son, both UND graduates, said they would vote to get rid of the name because of the controversy surrounding it.
“It’s bittersweet and it breaks my heart, but it has to go,” GaeLynn Striebel said.
Sean Johnson, spokesman for the nickname supporters, said his group will “keep plugging away” on the second referendum no matter what happens during Tuesday’s primary. He predicted the vote would be close.
Some schools quickly removed their American Indian-themed nicknames when faced with NCAA pressure, and others such as Florida State survived the edict by getting approval from namesake tribes. However, there was no such consensus among tribal leaders in North Dakota.
No nickname backers have held out as long as Fighting Sioux boosters, though school officials have long given up the fight and have been promoting a vote to retire the name.
Tim O’Keefe, executive vice president and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, led a tour of North Dakota last week that included several of the school’s coaches who pleaded for voters to finally put the issue to rest.
“I think that over the course of time our case has gotten stronger and stronger,” O’Keefe said. “Listening to the coaches last week tell the story about the reality of how they are being impacted by scheduling and recruiting ... the facts are the facts.”
The law forcing the school to use the name and logo was approved in March 2011 but was repealed in a special session after NCAA representatives told state officials that it would not budge on sanctions. Johnson’s group then collected the necessary signatures for the ballot measure.
O’Keefe said Johnson’s group should drop the second petition drive and come together with “the other passionate loyal supporters” of UND.
But Mike Kramer, 57, of Bismarck, was not swayed.
“I’m not a UND graduate, but I’m a UND hockey fanatic. I’ve been following since 1959, since they won their first national championship as the ‘Sioux,’” Kramer said. “I just don’t like the idea of being forced to change the name.”