North Dakotans reflect on Native-associated sports team names and recent changes

More than 300 UND students and nickname supporters dressed in their Fighting Sioux apparel gather for a 2010 rally and group photo at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The recent retirement of the Washington professional football team’s “Redskins” nickname and logo, along with reports of other sports teams reconsidering Native-themed names and logos, has some North Dakotans reflecting on the long, controversial history of the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” moniker.

For David Dodds, an alumnus and director of communications for the university, the relationship people have with the former Fighting Sioux name and logo has evolved through court proceedings and years of public debate.

“It was certainly something that I felt a lot of pride in,” Dodds said. “I’ve had a bit of a personal evolution in my mind as far as how I think about our former nickname and logo and how I came to embrace the current Fighting Hawks logo.”

This kind of evolution makes sense to Tim O’Keefe, who played hockey at UND and is former head of the UND Alumni Association.

“The old saying that time is a great healer, I think, bears some relevance in this situation,” O’Keefe said. “Some of the people who were very emotional and quite adamant, who were closer to the athletic program, have begun to accept the new name and have probably let the emotions they wrapped around the Fighting Sioux nickname slide somewhat. And there are some who will never change.”

After threats of sanctions by the NCAA and protests by some American Indian leaders and organizations and others, the nickname and logo were retired in 2012. Following a vote by students, alumni and other fans, UND’s athletic teams became the Fighting Hawks in 2015. In some ways, however, the old nickname – adopted in 1930 — is still there, in chants and cheers at UND hockey games and with limited sales of Fighting Sioux merchandise, which Dodds said is required to preserve the copyright.

“We don’t want others to take it and to overshadow what we’re trying to grow with our Fighting Hawks nickname and logo,” Dodds said. “We don’t want others to be able to take the old Fighting Sioux nickname and logo and alter it and make a mockery of it and do something potentially derogatory.”

Across the United States, sports teams such as the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and former Washington Redskins have recently discussed and in some cases changed their nicknames and traditions. O’Keefe said for some North Dakotans, witnessing the national conversation is like “picking a scab open.”

“North Dakota is a conservative state,” O’Keefe said. “I think that very much correlates with the strength of how some folks feel. There has always been a deep sense of independence and ‘Don’t tell us what to do, we’ll take care of ourselves.’ “

For Grand Forks Central high school alumni, the transition out of the Redskins nickname also stirs memories and, in some cases, old resentments. The Grand Forks Central Redskins moniker was retired in 1992, and while the initial transition was difficult for some, basketball coach Dan Carlson said students who have since come through the school have embraced the Knights nickname.

“I just remember myself thinking, why do the Washington Redskins get to keep theirs and we don’t?” Carlson said. “As a public school, we are representing the public, so it was easier to push for that change than the privately-owned Washington Redskins. There are very few symbols of the old Redskins in some of our trophy cases and things like that, but for the most part we’ve really transformed into the Knights over the last few years.”

Mark Rerick, Grand Forks Central athletic director, began his first year in Grand Forks in 2012 and remembers conversations about the Fighting Sioux nickname and seeing one or two pieces of “Redskins Forever” merchandise in his earliest years there. Today, Grand Forks Central’s football jerseys do not feature the Knights name or logo.

“The turnover in our programs is different than it is at the collegiate level,” Rerick said. “As I talk to people who have been in town and people who have been tied to (Grand Forks) Central High School, their loyalty is to Central. It’s to the culture of the school, it’s to the staff, to the faculty, even to the building itself.”

Schools like Grand Forks Central and Dickinson State University (which dropped the name Savages in 1972) have moved from their controversial previous nicknames and logos while other Native American- associated nicknames, such as the prep Westhope-Newburg Sioux and Mandan Braves, have remained. Some of the remaining Native-themed nicknames are at schools in communities with large Indian populations.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said educational systems listening to and teaching a broader, more correct history of Native American identities is a large step in relaying the importance of these changes. Open conversation is important.

“It’s been a tough goal getting these things addressed and changed and even talked about in the right manner,” Davis said. “As much as I want things and names changed, like the rest of my tribal members, there’s a process to that. I’m one to always follow that process.”

As national discussion continues, O’Keefe said while change is always difficult, discussions happening on a national scale are long overdue.

“There’s a fair amount of fatigue around the issue,” O’Keefe said. “No one likes being ‘educated’ about things they don’t agree with, but on a global scale, the conversation has built a much more broad conversation today. I never thought in my lifetime I’d see these (national sports team) names change, and I think they’re about to. And they should.”

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