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Chippewa also divided over Fighting Sioux nickname

UND Fighting Sioux logo

When a North Dakota Senate committee voted Tuesday on the UND Fighting Sioux nickname bill, the motion to recommend that the legislation be defeated came from the only American Indian serving in the Legislature.

Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt and a former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, will present the bill -- and the Education Committee's recommendation that it be rejected -- when it reaches the Senate floor, probably early next week.

He is not Sioux, but his decision to vote against the bill -- and passionate testimony offered during Monday's hearing by other members of the Turtle Mountain Band who favor it -- reflect longstanding divisions among and within the state's several reservations over the nickname issue.

Marcellais cited the potential cost of new lawsuits involving the state if the bill were approved, ordering UND to retain the nickname and directing the attorney general to consider taking the NCAA to court if the athletics association penalized the university.

But he said he also opposed the bill because many of the people directly affected, including members of the state's American Indian tribes, were against it.

"When you looked at all five entities involved, they were all against it except Spirit Lake," he said, according to a report Tuesday in the Bismarck Tribune. Also, "During the testimony, I noted that a lot of those who testified in support were alumni, while those against the bill are current students."

Marcellais, who declined to respond to several requests from the Herald for his views on the nickname issue, also said after the 5-2 committee vote that he does not believe American Indians should be used as mascots, the Tribune reported.

During the committee hearing Monday, Gailord Peltier of Turtle Lake, N.D., a member of the Turtle Mountain Band and a 1986 UND graduate, told how he had attended more than 30 Indian-themed events on campus since he participated in a "wacipi" celebration as a high school freshman, and he never experienced anything negative as an Indian.

He also told the committee that his son, Chris, left UND after he was verbally attacked by American Indian students who objected to his pro-nickname stance.

Chris Peltier was president of the UND Indian Association but resigned in November 2006 after he was quoted in a newspaper story saying he wasn't offended by the nickname and other members of the UNDIA board challenged him on it.

The board had voted the previous year to oppose the nickname.

"There are more Indian students here that don't care about the logo, who are just here to get an education," Chris Peltier said at the time. "But their voices aren't as loud as the few students that are against it. I just wanted those students that weren't against it to get involved and feel they could be a apart of the UND Indian Association."

The UNDIA vice president was B.J. Rainbow, also a member of the Turtle Mountain Band. Rainbow, who has family ties to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has opposed the nickname and today sits on one of the university's transition committees.

The much-admired logo was created by Bennett Brien, a well-known regional artist who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band. He expressed disappointment when the State Board of Higher Education directed UND to drop it in April 2010.

"Well, political correctness has reared its ugly head," he said then. "I knew it was going to happen. Now they will put some stupid-ass animal on the logo."

But Delvin Cree, a Turtle Mountain member from Dunseith, immediately applauded the board's decision. "This controversial issue has divided our communities," he wrote in a letter to the Herald.

Emil LaRocque, who worked many years as tribal scholarship director for the band, wrote later that month that the name and logo "had a negative effect on all Indian students" and he was glad to see it go. He said this week that he hasn't changed his position.

"As American Indian people, we hurt over such a name and have taken and seen much abuse over the years because of it," he said. "Indian people are not mascots. We no longer should be treated as such."

Noted author Louise Erdrich, also a member of the band, rejected an honorary degree from UND in April 2007 because of the nickname fight. "I hate to do something like this," she said at the time. "It goes against my grain. But I do feel strongly about this symbol."

Divided sentiment within the Turtle Mountain band was evident long before the issue came to a head with the NCAA campaign against the use of American Indian imagery for athletic nicknames, logos and mascots.

In 1992, a group calling itself SOAR -- Students Organized Against Racism -- formed at UND to seek elimination of the Fighting Sioux nickname and promote cultural awareness. One of the organizers was Joe McGillis, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band.

In 1999, Richard LaFromboise, then chairman of the band, delivered the traditional "state of the relationship" address to the North Dakota Legislature on behalf of the state's tribes. In his remarks, he appealed for a change in the UND nickname.

"A Norwegian can tell a Norwegian joke, and a German can tell a German joke," he said. "But when we talk about another group of people in a condescending manner, using them as mascots, it's ... demeaning."

In 2005, however, another Turtle Mountain chairman said that UND had done "a good job" in its use of the nickname and Indian-head logo.

Ken Davis, a UND alumnus and a co-founder of the UND Indian Association, said the issue was between UND and the Sioux tribes, but he had no problem with how the American Indian imagery was used at the university.

"They have used it as an opportunity to promote awareness of the culture of all Indian nations," he said in 2005. "UND has made a commitment to use the nickname and logo in a positive manner not offensive to Indian people. I accept that commitment and their efforts."

Another UND organization, BRIDGES, also opposed the nickname and objected to the 2008 "Unveiling of the Tribal Flags Ceremony" at Ralph Engelstad Arena, in which members of the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes participated.

Chelsey Lugar, a member of BRIDGES, participated in a protest against the ceremony.

"I am a proud member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and am also part Lakota (Sioux)," she said at the time. "As an American Indian who grew up in Grand Forks, I always have been deeply involved in the controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname."

The protest "is in no way a protest against the Indian participants of the event," she said. "Rather, it is a protest against the arena and its leadership's decision to use these Indian people ... trying to divide and conquer. ... We recognize this tactic of divide and conquer, which has been used throughout history in attempts to destroy Indian communities, and we will not allow this pattern to repeat itself."

In 2009, Carol Davis of Belcourt, N.D., wrote to object that she and other Turtle Mountain Band members "have been left out of the nickname decision."

That was unfortunate, she said, "because the logo is offensive to not only our Lakota brothers and sisters but also other tribes. Disrespect affects all of us when our culture and people are ridiculed by the Fighting Sioux's athletic opponents or when we are looked upon as mascots."

Davis said her granddaughter was taunted and reduced to tears "by some fraternity boys" when she dressed in a traditional dance costume and rode on a UND homecoming parade float years before.

"They didn't ask if she was Chippewa or Sioux," Davis said.