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ND voters: Retire the Fighting Sioux nickname

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- North Dakota voters appear ready to say goodbye to UND's historic Fighting Sioux nickname, overwhelmingly favoring a ballot measure Tuesday that would allow the university to drop the name.

With just over 43 percent of precincts reporting, the "Yes" vote on Measure 4 was leading the "No" vote by 66 percent to 34 percent. The "Yes" votes totaled 39,991, the "No" votes 20,640.

With all 27 precincts reporting in Grand Forks County, "Yes" had 5,426 votes to 2,276 for "No," or 70.45 percent to 29.55 percent.

For the past two years, a great many people have voted on UND's Fighting Sioux nickname.

State senators and state representatives, Supreme Court justices, members of the NCAA's governing committees, people of the Spirit Lake Nation, members of UND student and university senates -- all have had their say, one way or another.

Today the vote went statewide. But the big question -- maybe bigger than "yes" or "no" -- is whether this would be the end of a debate that has roiled, frustrated and wearied people in Grand Forks, the region and far beyond for many years.

The answer: Probably not.

Polls conducted in recent weeks showed a substantial lead for the "yes" side, for allowing UND to retire the name. The campaign led by the UND Alumni Association, featuring UND coaches warning that keeping the name could severely damage the university, appeared to be persuading some.

But Sean Johnson, the Bismarck spokesman for the group that circulated petitions to force the referendum, made it clear in an election eve statement that nickname supporters will continue to push for an initiated measure in November to secure the Fighting Sioux nickname in the state Constitution.

'A common effort'

"The Sioux people and non-Sioux natives of North Dakota have stood shoulder to shoulder in a common effort to preserve pride, honor, tradition and dignity," Johnson said.

"In the dead of winter you sought us out in the hidden corners where we were forced to set up (petition tables). With your fingers as well as the pens freezing up, you signed the petitions with pride and resolve.... Standing together, we stopped the efforts to destroy 80 years of honored tradition."

But that effort "was only the first phase," Johnson said. "Our ultimate goal is the November ballot."

That will require the filing of petitions with about 27,000 signatures, twice the number required for today's referendum. But Johnson said his group aims to collect at least 40,000.

"We are more than halfway there," he said.

Also likely to extend the nickname debate beyond today's election: two federal lawsuits, one by Indian students at UND opposing the nickname, the other by the Spirit Lake Nation against the NCAA on behalf of the name. Spirit Lake's suit was dismissed in U.S. District Court last month, but the tribe has appealed.

From Grand Forks to Standing Rock

Controversy over the nickname flared occasionally over the years, especially as American Indian enrollment grew at UND. In 2005, the NCAA adopted a policy discouraging the use of American Indian names and imagery by member schools. UND sued the NCAA over that policy, and a 2007 settlement gave the school three years to win namesake approval from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes.

Spirit Lake gave its OK. Standing Rock did not. UND began to retire the nickname, but the 2011 Legislature passed a law requiring the university to keep it. The law was repealed in November after lawmakers were persuaded the NCAA would not relent on sanctions against UND, but the referral stayed the repeal.

Today, voters in Grand Forks, home of the Fighting Sioux, went to the polls to decide the issue. Voters in Fargo, home of UND's primary rival through the Sioux decades, weighed in, as did people newly arrived to the western North Dakota oilfields from Tennessee and Texas and other distant places, if they'd lived here for 30 days and had come to care enough about a North Dakota school nickname to claim a say-so in whether it stays.

And the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, at least those who reside in the North Dakota portion of the border-straddling reservation, had their chance to vote on the university's use of their name.