UND nickname opponents: 'We are winning'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Opponents of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname brought one of the big guns to campus Wednesday morning in the battle against American Indian nicknames.

Clyde Bellecourt
Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt says a prayer Wednesday morning to open the anti-nickname rally in front of the University of North Dakota's Memorial Union. John Stennes / Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Opponents of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname brought one of the big guns to campus Wednesday morning in the battle against American Indian nicknames.

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement and a leader in protests nationwide against such nicknames, inspired the crowd with stories of protests past.

"We are winning," he said. Schools and universities around the country have dropped their nicknames, he said, including ones he thought would never relent, such as the Salmon (Idaho) "Fighting Savages."

Still on his list are the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins and the Fighting Sioux.

Bellecourt also showed some of the fire he's known for when he sprinkled tobacco on the ground and offered prayers for "those that are scholastically retarded about us and our culture."


The Herald counted about 75 rally participants, including organizers and speakers. Seven American Indian students attended a panel discussion that followed. UND has a student population that includes more than 400 American Indians, the largest among the state's non-tribal colleges and universities.

Bellecourt came at the request of UND's American Indian students who oppose the nickname. They also fear that the state Board of Higher Education, in a special meeting today, will extend the deadline for the university to win tribal support for the nickname.

The state board imposed the Oct. 1 deadline on itself. The actual deadline imposed by UND' settlement with the NCAA, which considers Indian nicknames derogatory, is February 2010.

One of the state's two Sioux tribes, Spirit Lake, has issued a resolution offering UND "perpetual" use of the nickname after a referendum in which 67 percent of tribal members supported the nickname. Nickname supporters in the other tribe, Standing Rock, want a referendum of their own and predict the results would be similar.

One counter-protester, Greg Plautz, held a sign that said, "Democracy Over All," according to an Associated Press report. Plautz, an aviation student from Milwaukee, told The AP he thinks members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, not the tribal council that governs them, should get a vote on the issue.

"I don't think this small group of people should be belittling the voices of the tribes. I'm a strong supporter of the nickname, but I will be OK with it going away as long as the people have their vote," said Plautz, who is not a member of either tribe.

Amber Annis, one of the rally organizers, said this is not an issue just for voters on two reservations, but an issue that affects all Indian students, no matter their tribe. Why, she asked, do the voices of people living on the reservation matter more than that of students forced to deal with the controversy every day?

"It is the Indian people on campus, near campus and in this community who receive the brunt of the insults," she said.


Celeste Melander, a UND student from Standing Rock, called the Herald after hearing about the protest and said she didn't feel disrespected either. Growing up on the reservation, she said, she knows what racism is. Some incidents that nickname opponents claim are racially motivated are just kids misbehaving and not race hate, she said.

There's little agreement whether Sioux is even a derogatory word for those who call themselves Dakota, Lakota and Nakota.

Dave Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and a UND alumnus, said "Sioux" was a name imposed on his people by white Europeans.

Yet, at Standing Rock, when given a chance to change the tribe's official name from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to Standing Rock Oyate, voters chose to keep the name.

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