Murphy to present 'Fighting Sioux' resolution

GRAND FORKS -- In a letter to University of North Dakota President Ken Baker in 1999, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux made his Tribal Council's position clear:...

GRAND FORKS -- In a letter to University of North Dakota President Ken Baker in 1999, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux made his Tribal Council's position clear:

"Dr. Baker, it is well past the time to allow for any race of people to be used as a nickname or caricature for any reason. Respectfully, we ask your institution to hear our call to stop the use of the 'Fighting Sioux' nickname immediately."

The chairman then was Charles Murphy.

Now Murphy is chairman again, elected in September to a sixth term (with breaks), and today he is to present a resolution to his council that may result in a popular vote on the long-running nickname issue.

"From everything I understand, it's still going to happen," Archie Fool Bear said of today's special council meeting.


Murphy called the council session -- with a single item on the agenda, petitions calling for a vote -- after meeting briefly last week with Fool Bear and other nickname supporters.

Fool Bear and the others had expected the council to consider the petitions then, and they were prepared to argue that the people of Standing Rock deserve a chance to be heard. But Murphy said he couldn't arrange a quorum.

UND has begun a transition away from the Fighting Sioux name and logo. It was directed to do so in April by the State Board of Higher Education when it appeared the board had failed to win the blessings of two namesake Sioux tribes, a requirement of a lawsuit settlement with the NCAA. The board had until Nov. 30 to gain permission from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux to retain the name and logo.

Nickname supporters, believing they had popular support on the two reservations but were being blocked by factions in tribal governments supported by groups at UND and elsewhere, arranged a vote last year at Spirit Lake, in which a two-thirds majority approved UND's continued use of the Fighting Sioux name and logo. Opponents cried foul, arguing that voters had been manipulated, but the decisive victory reinvigorated the more ardent nickname defenders.

The decision at Spirit Lake also motivated Fool Bear and other nickname supporters at Standing Rock to circulate petitions calling for a vote there. But their efforts stalled when the Tribal Council refused to consider the petitions, then insisted the signatures be verified. One official said that could take 90 days.

It was amidst that continuing uncertainty, with time running short -- and desire growing to get UND into the Summit League, which wants the nickname controversy settled first -- that the State Board finally pulled the plug and told UND President Robert Kelley to get on with the logo's retirement.

"Wait!" said nickname supporters. "Let the people at Standing Rock be heard."

They appealed to Gov. John Hoeven, who wrote to the chancellor of the North Dakota University System, urging him to "give due consideration to any vote by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe" if it occurs before Nov. 30.


That revived the more ardent Fighting Sioux fans. The cry went up on one website devoted to retaining the nickname and logo: "There's still hope!"

A different response came from nickname opponents at Standing Rock: "What part of 'No!' don't they understand?"

New petitions:

Against a vote

Since the Standing Rock Tribal Council adopted a resolution in 1992 opposing UND's use of the name and Indian head logo, the tribe's position has been reaffirmed many times, including in Murphy's 1999 letter.

Fool Bear, a former council member, said Tuesday that he has talked several times with Murphy about the nickname, and he believes the chairman "doesn't have a problem" with it himself. However, the chairman must faithfully represent positions taken by the council, he said.

Murphy did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Fool Bear also said that some residents of Standing Rock were circulating petitions asking the Tribal Council NOT to schedule a vote on the nickname. "People are running around bad-mouthing UND again and saying it would cost $120,000 to have an election," he said.


Murphy, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, returned to Standing Rock after military service to serve as a firefighter and police officer.

He was elected to the Tribal Council in 1981 and won his first term as chairman two years later, leading the tribe from 1983 to 1991, 1994 to 2005 and again after his victory last year over former Chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder, an outspoken nickname opponent.

"The purpose of this letter is to respectfully remind your office and any other entities, directly or indirectly associated with UND, of our position," Murphy wrote to Baker 11 years ago. "It is, of course, very simple and very clear: Eliminate and stop the use of the 'Fighting Sioux' nickname and caricature today.'"

While the word "tradition" had been used to justify continued use of the name, "our people find it very offensive and disrespectful," Murphy wrote. Also, suggestions that use of the nickname guards the Sioux against isolation "only perpetuate the ridiculous stereotypes that exist about American Indians."

Other tribes

also opposed nickname

Murphy told Baker that he was motivated to write in part by reports of "racial slurs and related acts ... stemming from the Sioux nickname used by UND." He also cited a statement issued earlier in 1999 by an official of United Sioux Tribes of South Dakota suggesting that Sioux tribes there were not opposed to UND's use of the name.

Not true, Murphy said, and within a week Baker received similar letters from leaders of the Sisseton-Wahpeton, Oglala, Rosebud, Yankton and Cheyenne River Sioux, as well as the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.


The governing body of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa) called for an end to the Fighting Sioux nickname and other "outdated and politically incorrect American Indian stereotypes ... all across America that demean the history and culture of Indian nations."

The nickname controversy continued, as Baker stepped down four months later and was replaced as UND president by Charles Kupchella, who eventually received a sharply worded letter himself -- from Ralph Engelstad, who said he would halt construction of the $100 million arena that bears his name if Kupchella bowed to pressure on the nickname.

Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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