Another Indian war in North Dakota

Is the name Fighting Sioux an insult or a compliment? Even North Dakota’s tribes can’t agree on that one. What is clear, though, is that supposed leaders — in this case, the North Dakota Legislature — can get on their high horses about anything, putting personal agendas ahead of common sense.

The University of North Dakota ran afoul of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules that ban the use of Native American team mascots. The university has long played its games as the Fighting Sioux. After a long wrangle, though, both sides sat down and negotiated a reasonable agreement: The school could continue to use its mascot if it could win the approval of the state’s two Sioux tribes; otherwise it would have to eliminate the mascot by Aug. 15.

Some of the Indians liked the name, considering it an honor; Chief Sitting Bull was, after all, the heroic leader of the victory at Little Big Horn, where the Sioux were defending their rights to land under a treaty that had been violated by the U.S. government. Other Native Americans in the state considered the name to be the sort of stereotype that portrays Indians only in the context of physical aggression. (Sitting Bull also was a holy man, but that’s not conveyed by the mascot.)


Unlike 19th century U.S. officials, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education knows how to honor an agreement. It decided to retire the Fighting Sioux mascot. But then the North Dakota Legislature upset that amicable resolution by passing a law mandating that the university keep the old mascot. As a result, the university’s athletics program faces various NCAA sanctions and might be excluded from the Big Sky Conference, which it had planned to join.

This is a 21st century conflict, so of course there also are lawsuits. Some members of the Spirit Lake tribe sued to keep the mascot, but their case was thrown out of court. A group of Native American students at the university sued to get rid of the name and accompanying logo of a young Sioux man. Written into the new state law is a provision that calls for suing the NCAA if it imposes any penalties.

Many of the legislators are alumni who understandably cling to this symbol of their college years, but reason should come before sentiment, and the law should be repealed. Lawmakers should have gotten more out of their college experience than the “fighting” part.