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Spirit Lake voters overwhelmingly support Fighting Sioux nickname

Jake Lenoir, left, Wesley Big Track, center, and Jeff Whiteshield, background, watch for pike in a stream on the Spirit Lake Reservation on Tuesday. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- Spirit Lake voters apparently overwhelmingly support UND's Fighting Sioux nickname in a referendum Tuesday.

Late Tuesday, the Herald was still trying to verify the results with election judges. But nickname supporter Eunice Davidson said her source at the ballot counting site said the unofficial results are 774 "yes" to 378 "no," giving the nickname 67 percent of the vote.

Some voters wore apparel bearing the word "Sioux" in UND green or the Indian head logo used by the university's hockey team, the very things that nickname opponents have called racist and demeaning.

And those who wore the supposedly offensive symbols weren't even doing it to make a point. They said that's just what they wear because they like and are even proud of the nickname.

"I'm so happy," Davidson said. "I know the campaign we run we tried to stay on the positive side, didn't try to run anybody down."

One anti-nickname organizer Erich Longie had earlier said he didn't think his side would prevail because it hadn't had enough time to educate voters, which includes accusing pro-nickname organizers of getting financial support from Ralph Engelstad Arena, the home of the UND hockey team.

The arena and nickname supporters say that's simply not true.

Terry Morgan, a key anti-nickname organizer, said his side just didn't have enough time. He'd recently gone to a pro-nickname household, he said, shared information and converted them.

"If I could honestly sit down with a lot of people, I could talk a lot of people out of it," Morgan said. He's not sure what nickname opponents will do next, he said, but they'll still keep fighting.

Some voters who the Herald spoke with either said they didn't care what opponents had to say or had heard and were unconvinced.

The nickname would still need the support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe if UND is to keep it. That's the main condition of a settlement between the university and the NCAA, which opposes Indian mascots.

Standing Rock nickname supporters say they're working to win their tribe's approval, but the Tribal Council has resisted a referendum.

Sioux pride

Jake Lenoire and his two fishing buddies were typical of the voters on Tuesday.

On the hoodie that he wore were two Indian head logos, one big one at the chest and a smaller one on the hood.

He had the day off because of the primary election and he was planning to go vote after catching enough pike with a big homemade spear.

It seemed almost a coincidence that he'd be wearing the logo on the very day that he was to decide whether his tribe would support the Fighting Sioux nickname. But when asked about it, he just shrugged.

The nickname's been around a long time and he sees no reason to change it, he said. "Most people I know like it. Just a handful of people around here don't like it."

"That's all we're voting on today; keep that nickname," said Wesley Big Track, one of Lenoir's fishing buddies. "After I get my limit, I'll go vote there."

Five and half miles down the road at the Fort Totten District's polling station, Alex Greywater IV, wearing a Sioux baseball jersey, was hanging out with his father.

"I didn't even know they were voting on that thing there until I went in," the son said, when asked why he was wearing the jersey. He voted for the nickname, he said, because he likes it.

Asked why so many people were wearing Fighting Sioux gear, Morgan, the nickname opponent, suggested that it was because they were being given away by the local KABU radio station, which pro-nickname organizer John Chaske runs.

Chaske earlier said he just gets freebies from all over and gives them away to promote the station.

Some nickname opponents had complained that the word Sioux is derived from a derogatory term given to them by their enemies. It's supposed to mean "snake in the grass."

"I feel great pride in it," Tamara Belgarde said. "We all know where the Sioux word comes from. We all know who gave it to us. But ... we've managed to turn it into a really proud name."

"I'm proud of it," said Alex Greywater III.


"I'm a Sioux," he said with a grin.

No campus hostility

One of the problems nickname opponents had had with a referendum was they felt most voters could not appreciate the hostile environment they felt on the UND campus.

Yet, voters the Herald spoke with said they'd been on campus or knew someone who attended UND and that was not the case

Anissa Red Tomahawk said she attended UND and never experienced anything hostile. "Not once."

"I guess if they're worried about the prejudice and name-calling," she said, "whether it's the Fighting Sioux or not they're still going to do it so I just say leave it alone."

While living in Grand Forks in 1994 and 1995, Tamara Belgarde said she took her cousin's kids to lots of UND games and never felt insulted.

"I never ever saw any UND student act in a derogatory manner in any way," she said. "I did occasionally see some of the opponents, their teams acting in a derogatory way. But never once did I see a UND student act in a derogatory way."

Belgarde isn't blind to racism. She said she's experienced it in Devils Lake and so has her fiancé. But the Fighting Sioux nickname just isn't racist to her, she said. She'd attended a rally that nickname opponents held, she said, but, after thinking about what she heard and talking about it with her fiancé, she still voted for the nickname.

Greywater III said he'd seen the fliers that nickname opponents passed out, including one that showed images from a 2007 UND sorority party where participants wore loincloths and war paint and one that quoted Ralph Engelstad supposedly using a racial slur against Indians.

"I didn't bother with it," Greywater III said, waving a hand as if pushing them away.

His nephew attends UND, he said, and he'd never heard of any harassment.

Morgan said he believes voters like these are victims.

"I'm not that educated to name exact terminology to label people like that, but I think these are people that have been oppressed all their lives, that they don't have to be first class citizens in this country," Morgan said. "That's not the message we're trying to get across."

"This is never going to be over. We'll think of something," said anti-nickname organizer Longie