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The University of North Dakota voted Wednesday to abandon its Native American mascot and moniker, but it was no easy feat.

Houska: Legislation, Litigation, and the Kitchen Sink, But the Fighting Sioux Mascot Is Done

Tara Houska

On Wednesday, the University of North Dakota ended the fight to keep its Native American mascot with the selection of the “Fighting Hawks” for its new name. The change marks the end of a long, complicated road.

The growing swell of Native voices calling for change initially gained traction in 1999, when state lawmakers finally proposed legislation to remove the logo. The legislation failed, but the State Board picked up the cause.

A private donor, Ralph Engelstad, threatened to withdraw his $100 million dollar pledge for a new hockey arena. The State Board of Education quickly voted unanimously against any change.

Engelstad, it turned out, was a huge supporter of Nazi Germany, and his collection of paraphernalia included plates to print bumper stickers with the phrase, “Hitler was Right.” The Ralph Engelstad Arena was built in accordance with Engelstad’s wish to permanently imprint the arena with the Fighting Sioux logo and remain privately owned by his estate. The logo is featured 2,400 times, in everything from granite floors and seat rows to being etched into glass.

In 2004, the NCAA issued a policy against race-based mascots in collegiate sports. UND was one of those who staunchly refused to comply, choosing instead to engage in a decade-long battle with the NCAA and local tribes.

The following year, the NCAA sanctioned UND by banning uniforms with Native American nicknames or logos from use in any postseason NCAA tournament. UND responded by suing the organization. Other schools lent support to the Native community by refusing to play UND until its name was changed. In 2007, the NCAA agreed to allow UND to use the name on the condition of garnering support of the local tribes. They tried, and failed.

But North Dakota wasn’t done yet. State legislators passed a law preventing a name change that was later repealed. Supporters brought their own lawsuit against the NCAA. After a state referendum finally resulted in retiring the name, a former North Dakota mayor attempted to block a new name by trademarking all five replacement options.

For more than 80 years, the University of North Dakota engaged in the use of a Native American mascot and name. For the last three years, the team has gone nameless. But despite the Engelstads, the lawsuits, and the last ditch efforts to hold onto a moniker that didn’t belong to them, progress ultimately prevailed.

Native Americans are people, we aren’t mascots. Indoctrination of negative stereotypes and harms to our children’s self-esteem have been shown again and again. Positive intent does not change the destructive outcome.

Though the whole of Native America cannot reach 100-percent consensus and nor should it be expected to, one thing is for certain: no matter if it’s a century-old sports franchise, big oil, or the United States Congress, Indian people do not back down. We fight for what we believe in, and we are still here.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Josh Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.

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