BISMARCK, N.D. — Two initiative campaigns begun Tuesday would let voters decide whether the University of North Dakota should keep its Fighting Sioux nickname in spite of penalties by the NCAA, which considers it offensive to American Indians.
One referendum would repeal the North Dakota Legislature’s decision last month to allow UND to drop the contentious nickname, which its teams have used since 1930.
The second initiative would change the North Dakota Constitution to require UND to continue using the Fighting Sioux name. The proposed amendment is one sentence: “The University of North Dakota and its intercollegiate athletic teams shall be known as the Fighting Sioux.”
Continued use of the moniker would expose the Grand Forks school to NCAA penalties, including a ban on hosting postseason tournaments, and may complicate its efforts to join the Big Sky athletics conference next year.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s approval of the ballot measures Tuesday allows supporters of the Fighting Sioux nickname to begin gathering petition signatures. The measures will go to a statewide vote if nickname backers collect enough names.
Under the repeal initiative, if nickname supporters turn in petition signatures from at least 13,452 North Dakota voters by Feb. 7, University of North Dakota teams will have to keep using the Fighting Sioux nickname until the next statewide election. North Dakota is holding a primary June 12, but Gov. Jack Dalrymple has the option of calling a special election before then.
The constitutional initiative requires supporters to collect signatures from at least 26,904 North Dakota voters by Aug. 8 in order to put the amendment to a vote in the November 2012 general election.
If the change is approved, UND would have to keep the Fighting Sioux name unless voters decided later to repeal the amendment.
As long as UND keeps the Fighting Sioux nickname, the NCAA will bar the school from hosting postseason tournaments. UND teams also may not wear uniforms in postseason play with the nickname or a logo that features the profile of an American Indian warrior.
UND has supported retiring the nickname. University spokesman Peter Johnson declined comment Tuesday about the measures.
Erik Christianson, an NCAA spokesman, said the university’s teams would remain subject to NCAA sanctions if the nickname is used. Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, did not immediately respond on Tuesday to telephone and email messages requesting comment.
The sponsoring committees for the two measures include individual members of the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes who have been vocal supporters of the nickname.
Spirit Lake members backed the nickname during a reservation referendum. The Standing Rock reservation has not had a vote, and its tribal council has repeatedly opposed the Fighting Sioux name.
Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the majority leader in the North Dakota House, said the constitutional amendment would give nickname supporters and critics a statewide forum to debate their views.
Carlson has sponsored legislation that required UND to keep its nickname. He said an overwhelming vote in its favor may prompt the NCAA to relax its opposition.
“It never hurts to have the vote,” Carlson said Tuesday. “You know what, it’s worth a try … Maybe a referendum across our state would have some meaning to the NCAA.”
Democratic state Sen. Mac Schneider and GOP state Rep. Stacey Dahl, who represent a Grand Forks district that includes the university, said the measures would cause problems for the school’s athletics recruiting and scheduling if approved.
Schneider, a former UND football player, said the “negative ramifications that come from having a (pro-nickname) law on the books, whether it’s passed by the Legislature or enacted by the people through an initiated measure, are the same.”
“North Dakota voters are smart. They do love the Fighting Sioux nickname. But they’re also wise enough to see that this is going to harm UND,” Schneider said.
The Fighting Sioux dispute began in 2005, when the NCAA listed the University of North Dakota among a group of schools with American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots that the association said were “hostile and offensive” to Indians.
UND is the only school where the issue remains unresolved. Last spring, the North Dakota Legislature approved a bill, sponsored by Carlson, that ordered the school to continue using the nickname. But lawmakers changed their minds during a special session last month and agreed to allow UND to drop it.
The referendum measure would, in essence, repeal the repeal, and restore the earlier state law that requires UND to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname and American Indian head logo. The proposed constitutional amendment does not say UND must keep the logo.