North Dakota voters have - for now, at least - cleared the way for the University of North Dakota’s athletic teams to drop their controversial Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.
North Dakotans voted 60.5% to 39.5% on Tuesday in favor of a referendum measure that essentially gives the school the power to drop the name, which it has sought to do to comply with an NCAA campaign targeting Native American nicknames.
“We are appreciative that voters took the time to listen and to understand the issues and the importance of allowing the university to move forward,” university President Robert O. Kelley said Wednesday.
But a years-long battle over the nickname might not be over, with supporters hoping to force another vote – this time calling for changing the state Constitution to mandate the name’s use – in November.
The issue stems from the NCAA's longstanding efforts to get most Native American nicknames and logos out of college athletics. In 2005, the NCAA ordered almost 20 schools whose nicknames and mascots it deemed "abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin" to either get Native American permission to use their names and likenesses or come up with new ones.
The NCAA said that schools continuing to use such nicknames without permission would, among other things, be prohibited from hosting NCAA championship events.
Although one tribal body, Spirit Lake, supported the Fighting Sioux nickname, another group, the Tribal Council of the Standing Rock Sioux, did not give its endorsement. So the North Dakota Board of Higher Education agreed in 2007 to retire the nickname by August 2011.
But some North Dakotans, including the Spirit Lake group, objected, and the state Legislature passed a law in early 2011 requiring the university to use the Fighting Sioux nickname.
That law was repealed in November, when legislators approved Senate Bill 2370, which allowed the school to stop using the moniker.
That prompted the nickname’s supporters to secure petitions forcing Tuesday’s referendum, which asked voters whether Senate Bill 2370 should stand. Tuesday’s “yes” vote keeps the bill in place.
The school stopped referring to its teams as the Fighting Sioux after SB 2370 passed, and the Sioux name and logo were gone from all uniforms except those of the hockey team. But the sports department resumed the nickname's use in news releases in February, when it became clear that the June referendum would happen, said Peter Johnson, executive assistant vice president for university relations.
Johnson said the school will await direction from the State Board of Higher Education, which has a previously scheduled meeting Thursday, regarding when the UND will drop the nickname again. As for a replacement nickname, SB 2730 says UND cannot choose one until January 2015.
But Fighting Sioux supporters have long said they intend to force a vote on constitutionally mandating the name. Supporters have until August to submit enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot.
The UND Alumni Association and Foundation opposes the nickname, saying that the consequences of keeping it extend beyond NCAA sanctions. It says that recruitment is suffering in part because some other schools, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota State, won’t compete with UND’s teams over the issue.
The Spirit Lake Committee for Understanding and Respect, which is among the nickname’s supporters, argues that the name and log represent the Sioux people and North Dakota history well.
“We as North Dakotans have many great schools in our state. Each has its own pride and traditions. UND is no exception. The Fighting Sioux is to UND as Coke is to Coca Cola. The name has become the branding of UND,” the group says on its website.
– CNN's Jason Hanna, Kevin Conlon and Phil Gast contributed to this report.