U.S. News

06.26.14

The Native Americans Who Voted for ‘The Fighting Sioux’

The University of North Dakota was forced by the NCAA to change its nickname, but unlike the Washington Redskins today, a tribe wanted to keep it.

There is a lot of pressure on the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, to change the name of his National Football League franchise to something that isn’t considered a racial slur. Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said the Redskins name and logo should not have trademark protection. Snyder has steadfastly refused to even consider a name change. It is a good thing for Snyder that he has an NFL franchise and is not running a college athletic program. The chances are Snyder would have had to rebranded the athletic program by now. 

The NFL has not taken the road that the National Collegiate Athletic Association traveled in 2005. The college sports governing body came down hard on schools who used what it thought were slurs against Native Americans and American Indians.

In August 2005, the NCAA decided that 19 schools had names or mascots that were “hostile or abusive” and that the offensive names, logos and mascots had to be gone by February 1, 2006 or the schools would face sanctions that included not being able to host postseason championship events in all sports and the barring of the use of the team name and logos during postseason tournaments. Additionally, colleges could choose to not schedule games against schools with names, logos and mascots deemed offensive to Native Americans. The schools were given a choice change the name and the associated logos or go to local Native American or Indian tribes and see if you can get approval to continue using names and logos and mascots.

Florida State’s use of Seminoles as a nickname was no problem and the Seminole tribe told the school to go ahead and use it. But there was a serious concern in North Dakota. The University of North Dakota sued the NCAA claiming the school’s athletic nickname, The Fighting Sioux, was not offensive.

But there is some question as to whether North Dakota’s two Sioux tribes gave approval to the university in 1969 to change the school’s nickname from the Sioux to the Fighting Sioux. It seems both tribes supported the name change in religious ceremonies.

By 2008, the NCAA and the University of North Dakota settled the lawsuit with the school, agreeing to retire The Fighting Sioux name unless it received approval from both the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes by the end of 2010. The university got half a loaf: Spirit Lake affirmed the name in a two-to-one vote, but Standing Rock (which had for years demanded that the name be banished to history books) said no. A non-Sioux nation in the state, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, also said no.

In 2011, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education decided to get rid of the nickname and logo after the NCAA proposed sanctions against the school.

It would seem that the Washington and North Dakota situations are similar but according to Peter Johnson, the executive associate vice president for the University (of North Dakota) relations, they’re quite different.

The University of North Dakota sued the NCAA claiming the school's athletic nickname, The Fighting Sioux, was not offensive.

“They are not parallel,” said Johnson. “Pro football teams are not bound by NCAA rules. There were schools who threatened to not play us. There was no groundswell, but there were some people who felt that the name would adversely affect the athletic program.”

There was also one other factor that Snyder will never have to face. The voters of North Dakota had to decide whether or not to keep the nickname. The University of North Dakota is a state school and in 2012, it was decided once and for all that the state electorate should have the final say on the issue.

The issue not only split the tribes but also school alumni.

In June 2012, North Dakota voters overwhelmingly said the name had to go by more than two-to-one in a referendum and with that, the Fighting Sioux and the school logo were gone, although there was some business left.

“It was transformed away in June 2012,” said Johnson. “But we had contracts [with vendors] until December 31, 2012. We still have to protect the logo, retain the mark for historical legacy situations. There is no nickname and we use another logo that dates back to the 1920s.”

The school’s athletic teams cannot have a new nickname and logo until January 1, 2015 at the earliest. Johnson indicated the school was in no hurry to unveil a new nickname or logo.

The “legacy” logo, which is that of an Indian head, was designed by a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, North Dakota alum Bennett Brien, in 1999. Brien told USA Today in 2011 that the logo was not offensive.

The University of North Dakota’s plight never attracted much interest outside of the state. Snyder’s Redskins are a different matter. While there is political and Native American pressure on Snyder to change the name, Snyder is able to fend off the critics and the calls for changing the name. If the money starts to dwindle, then Snyder will do something. But for now, Snyder’s partners are standing with him. It would be the local Beltway revenues that would erode as NFL teams all share equally in TV regular season and playoff games revenue from FOX, CBS, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV.

“To the best of my knowledge, there has been no loss of advertisers on his radio stations [which air Redskins games in the District] or at FedEX Field,” said media consultant Jim Williams. “If you are going to run away from him, now is a good time.”

Snyder has a long waiting list for tickets and win or lose a ticket for game featuring Snyder’s team is hard to get. Unless that changes, there is no reason for Snyder to rebrand his team or change the logo or colors. The NFL is not going to order him to eliminate the name because it might be offensive. They might if the money well runs dry.