ND legislator fights to keep ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname alive


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

STAYING ALIVE: North Dakota state Rep. Scott Louser, hoping to keep the “Fighting Sioux” nickname fight alive, wants to maintain a moratorium on the University of North Dakota picking a new logo and nickname.

MINOT, N.D. — A Republican state legislator from Minot wants to keep the fight for the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” logo and nickname alive, and he’s got a bill ready for the 2015 Legislature to do it.

The fight over the nickname has been on-going for decades, and in recent years has spilled over into the political world. During the 2011 session, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the University of North Dakota to keep the nickname, but after the NCAA refused to back down from sanctions for using it, lawmakers repealed that mandate and replaced it with a two-year moratorium on the university taking up a new nickname.

That moratorium is up in January 2015, and Rep. Scott Louser says he wants to make sure it stays in place.

“I started this back in November to extend the moratorium in two more years,” Louser told Watchdog.org.

He notes that his legislation wasn’t in response to a recent controversy in Grand Forks where T-shirts, some worn by people thought to be UND students at a city event not associated with the university, showed a Native American chief with a beer bong in his mouth and the phrase “Siouxper Drunk.”

“I didn’t think I needed to make an issue of it in May of 2014,” Louser said, noting his bill was prepared by legislative council months ago.

The T-shirt controversy has reignited the fight against the nickname, even though it’s retired. Activists plan to march on the UND campus later this week, and among their demands are sensitivity training for all incoming UND students and a ban on supporting the logo and nickname on campus.

Kyle Thorson, a member of the UND student government and a Democrat running for the state House in District 43, has proposed a resolution that would bar any member of the student government from expressing support for the former nickname.

Thorson didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Louser wants to head in a different direction. He said he’s hoping to head off any effort to transition to a new nickname before the Legislature can act.

SIOUXPER DRUNK: The nickname controversy was re-ignited after attendees at a City of Grand Forks event, some of them thought to be UND students, wore shirts showing a Native American chief with a beer bong in his lips.

“If UND wanted to they could develop a new nickname and implement it during the session before we can do anything,” he said.

Louser said his bill would extend the existing moratorium by two and a half years through July 1, 2017. According to Louser, the additional time could be used to negotiate with North Dakota’s Sioux tribes.

In a legal settlement the state of North Dakota reached with the NCAA, permission from the state’s Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes would allow use of the logo and nickname to continue.

The Spirit Lake tribe voted on the nickname in 2009, with more than 60 percent supporting it. The Standing Rock tribe never scheduled a vote, but Louser said there is new leadership at Standing Rock that may be conducive to the tribe finally holding a vote.

Even if this latest effort to keep the nickname fails, Louser isn’t ready to move on.

“If it doesn’t pass maybe we just go without a nickname forever,” he said. “That would be a discussion we would have in the 2017 session. If we get up to January of 2017 and there hasn’t been a vote yet, we’ll know about it.”

The university operating without a nickname could allow the nickname to survive in exile. A recent federal court ruling has held that trademarks recognized by the government cannot disparage religious or ethnic groups. If the ruling is upheld it could put UND in the position of either arguing that “Fighting Sioux” is not disparaging to Native Americans or being forced to release the trademark.

That would mean it could be used by third parties to create merchandise, which could then be marketed to fans of UND athletics who still very much support the nickname.

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org