Measure 4 in North Dakota is one of the most significant developments in the decades-long controversy over American Indian mascots used by colleges and pro sports teams.
The University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname — which has long been controversial but now risks financial and competitive sanctions from the NCAA — will face a rare public referendum in what has been a lengthy and ongoing process.
The Sioux nickname, much like the Redskins, is viewed as an especially derogatory reference to American Indians (“Sioux” translates to “snake”). But also like the Redskins, the school’s mascot has a loyal fanbase who can’t imagine their team called anything else.
The vote today will be on whether to repeal a bill that struck down the law mandating the nickname. The bill passed in the state legislature after the NCAA threatened to keep the school from hosting lucrative playoff games — most notably in college hockey, where the team is a national contender (though inferior to the mighty Golden Gophers) — and even forcing it to forfeit games if it promotes the mascot in the postseason.
Some UND administrators and fans who have stuck by the nickname for years have slowly moved toward acknowledging its time has passed. But whether a majority of the state’s residents agree is another matter.
If this conservative state rejects the “Fighting Sioux” nickname, it seems logical that other teams may take a second look at their own controversial mascots. If the state upholds it, it could be evidence of a mandate for the teams to stick by their longtime American Indian mascots.
When the sanctions were first wielded last decade, many schools with American Indian-themed mascots simply changed their nicknames. Others, including schools like Florida State University, got the approval of local tribes to continue using their nicknames.
In North Dakota, though, the two largest tribes are split on the nickname, with one (the Spirit Lake Sioux) fighting to keep it and another (the Standing Rock Sioux) declining to endorse it. In addition, the school’s decade-old, $100 million hockey arena was built with thousands of strategically placed Fighting Sioux logos — the benefactor of the arena, Ralph Engelstad, insisted that the nickname be kept — that would be costly to remove.
Either way, though, the vote tonight isn’t going to be the end. The same groups fighting against the state legislature’s bill today are pushing a ballot referendum in November that would write the nickname into the state’s constitution. Which means the issue will persist from North Dakota to D.C. for some time.