Is it the return of the Fighting Sioux? Supporters of the University of North Dakota's nickname turned in more than 17,000 signatures Tuesday night to cap a petition drive to force a statewide vote on a moniker the NCAA says is insulting to American Indians.
Campaign organizers said they had gathered far more than the 13,452 signatures needed to put a question before voters in June.
Reed Soderstrom, chairman of the referendum campaign, said organizers counted 17,213 names. The petitions were delivered to Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Jaeger planned to check the count Wednesday. He has 35 days to review the petition and decide whether it is sufficient to qualify for the ballot.
Archie Fool Bear, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and Eunice Davidson, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux, said the work of gathering names was exhausting.
"We worked in the cold weather. We froze. But even though we went through all that, it was really an experience, learning how to do this," Davidson said.
Residents of the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation in northeastern North Dakota endorsed the nickname's continued use in a reservation referendum. The Standing Rock tribe had no referendum, and its tribal council has long opposed the name.
"Members on our reservation are going to have a chance to vote on this," Fool Bear said.
Jaeger said the petitions alone are enough to temporarily revive a law that requires UND teams to be known as the Fighting Sioux.
The name and an American Indian head logo have already been scrubbed from university websites and removed from some school team uniforms to head off NCAA sanctions, which include a ban on hosting postseason games or fielding teams in postseason play with the logo or nickname on uniforms.
Faced with the probable signature-gathering success by Fighting Sioux supporters, university officials and members of the state Board of Higher Education said Tuesday they had no plans to immediately restore the nickname.
The measure does not include any penalty if UND or the board ignores its directive, and Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the Republican majority leader in the North Dakota House and chief sponsor of the legislation, said he did not support one.
"I love the Fighting Sioux but I don't see that as an issue worth fighting over," Carlson said. "I don't see that we should be running penalties up."
Duaine Espegard, the board's vice president, said Tuesday that board members needed to consult first with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem about the implications of the petition filing.
"There really isn't a plan right now, and we'll have to wait a day or so," Espegard said.
Stenehjem declined comment Tuesday. The board's president, Grant Shaft, did not respond immediately to telephone and email requests for comment.
The law Carlson sponsored says UND's athletics teams must be known as the Fighting Sioux and bars the university and Board of Higher Education from discontinuing the use of either the nickname or logo.
The law won final legislative approval in March and took effect Aug. 1. After the NCAA declined to back away from sanctions it planned for UND's continued use of the nickname, the Legislature repealed the law during a special session last November.
Once Jaeger has given his OK, the petition filing would temporarily reverse the repeal and make Carlson's original measure the law again until the June vote is held.
Peter Johnson, a UND spokesman, said the university has already taken a number of steps to retire the logo and nickname. The logo and Fighting Sioux references have been removed from university websites, and Internet addresses have been changed to delete mention of them.
The Fighting Sioux Sports Network, the Fighting Sioux Club and Sioux Crew have had their names changed to the UND Sports Network, the North Dakota Champions Club and Nodak Nation.
In place of the American Indian warrior profile, a new logo, with an interlocking ND, is featured. The ND logo is on the front of new jerseys for the women's hockey team, Johnson said.
The school's women's basketball team uniforms had a small American Indian head logo, which "has been removed as part of the transition," Johnson said. UND's men's basketball uniforms have had neither the logo nor the nickname.
The UND men's hockey team will continue to wear jerseys with the logo and the word "SIOUX" emblazoned across the chest, Johnson said. New jerseys aren't scheduled for delivery until the end of the month, he said.
Backers of the nickname referendum are also circulating a separate petition that would amend the North Dakota Constitution to require UND to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname. That petition does not need to be turned in until August to qualify for the November general election ballot.