Between the Lines: It’s too early to celebrate

I nearly geared myself up for a small celebration when I read late last night that North Dakota voters overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to finally discard the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo.

But then I remembered that way back in 2009 I wrote a column with the headline "Goodbye and good riddance to UND logo" because it seemed like it surely was going to be dropped that year.

I'm purposely holding off on throwing an internal, emotional pep rally. It's not that I'm worried so much about my psyche. It's just that the mascot has been on the brink of being rightfully discarded, as all racially insensitive expressions should be.

And then it's resurrected. Again. And again. Sort of like the cyborg assassins in the "Terminator" movies. They get shot, and simply repair themselves. The good guys melt them into a big puddle. And they solidify and continue wreaking havoc.

They are hard to kill. So are traditions.

At present, however, I have reason to be hopeful.

North Dakotans signaled Tuesday they're ready to say goodbye to UND's Fighting Sioux nickname, overwhelmingly favoring a ballot measure that would allow the university to drop the name.

According to unofficial results Wednesday morning, the "yes" vote on the ballot measure topped the "no" vote by 67.35 percent to 32.65 percent. The "yes" votes totaled 113,684, the "no" votes 55,114. 

I am hopeful today, just as I was in May of 2009, when North Dakota's Board of Higher Education agreed to drop the UND's Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo.

That didn't happen, obviously.

The mascot issue has a long, complicated history. In 2005, the NCAA adopted a policy discouraging the use of American Indian names and imagery by member schools. UND sued the NCAA, and a 2007 settlement gave the school three years to win namesake approval from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes.

Spirit Lake gave its OK. Standing Rock did not. UND began to retire the nickname, but the 2011 North Dakota Legislature passed a law requiring the university to keep it. The law was repealed in November after lawmakers were persuaded the NCAA would not relent on sanctions, but the referral stayed the repeal.

So, in just the last seven years, we've had a NCAA policy that should have ended the use of (or killed) the mascot. It was kept alive for three more years when UND sued the NCAA.

The university began to retire the mascot in 2010.  The North Dakota Legislature brought it back to life in 2011.

The mascot seemed to be heading for permanent retirement last November, when North Dakota lawmakers appeared to listen to reason and repealed that law.

It came back to life this year, however, when that repeal was referred to this week's vote.

I remain hopeful. But history has shown that the mascot certainly has staying power.

There no doubt will be some sadness from Fighting Sioux loyalists following what will be the eventual retirement of the mascot.

What's truly tragic, however, is that this change will not have come after an intense session of soul-searching on the part of North Dakota education officials.

It took a decades-long campus dispute about whether the name demeans Native Americans, and pressure from the NCAA and ultimately, the Summit League, to finally convince board members that the nickname and logo are wrong.

In other words, if you think this change represents a generous act of human kindness on the part of North Dakota higher ed personnel, think again.

And sadly, the NCAA had to implement that process all over again in the halls of the North Dakota Legislature after state lawmakers tried to protect the mascot with a new law in 2011.  North Dakota lawmakers repealed the law not because it suddenly became enlightened to the insensitive and racist overtones of the law.

Lawmakers acted because of intense pressure from the NCAA.

"The (Native American) logo issue needs to be resolved one way or another," Tom Douple, the Summit League's commissioner, said of UND's status when he visited the USD campus here in Vermillion in January 2009. "We're not going to move on anything – they need to complete their own discussions on that issue before we would even discuss possible membership."

There will likely be backlash from mascot supporters who will stick to their misguided claims that the Fighting Sioux mascot harms no one, that those who object to it are overreacting, that the mascot is, in fact, meant to honor a race of people.

Even if those people object to be "honored" in such a manner.

There is talk now that nickname supporters will push for another vote, even though North Dakotans spoke very loudly against the mascot at polling places this week.

There are also two federal lawsuits involving the Fighting Sioux nickname, one by Indian students at UND who oppose its use, the other by the Spirit Lake Nation against the NCAA on behalf of the name. Spirit Lake's lawsuit was dismissed in U.S. District Court last month, but the tribe has appealed.

So, the celebration is on hold. As I noted earlier, however, I'm hopeful.

It's the 21st century. Surely it's time for UND to find a more fitting, less controversial athletic symbol.

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