STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, N.D. — As North Dakota residents resoundingly decided to scrap their flagship university's Fighting Sioux nickname, the response was far murkier in Sioux County – home to a tribe that had gone decades without staking a clear position on the divisive question.
Voters statewide turned out in numbers not seen in a primary election for more than five decades, according to unofficial results, yet most members of the Standing Rock tribe took a pass. Sioux County, where much of the reservation is based, voted 184-159 to retire the University of North Dakota's nickname and Indian head logo.
That represented just 8 percent of county residents, 84 percent of whom are American Indians.
"By and large most people either don't care or support the name," Lyle Antelope, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, said Wednesday.
The issue, which has divided the state for decades, boiled over seven years ago when UND was placed on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames that the NCAA deemed hostile and abusive. Those colleges were told to dump the names or risk sanctions against their athletic teams.
Some schools quickly removed their American Indian-themed nicknames and others, such as Florida State, survived the NCAA edict by securing the approval of namesake tribes.
There was no such consensus in North Dakota. The Spirit Lake tribe approved the nickname in 2010, but the other tribe_ Standing Rock – never took a vote. That's why Tuesday's election was being closely watched in Sioux County as the first – and possibly only – opportunity for members of that tribe to speak in unison.
Walter Twinn, 69, who still speaks his native Dakota language, said there are only a handful of people on the reservation strongly opposed to the name. He cited a 1969 pipe ceremony held on the UND campus when a delegation from Standing Rock and at least one representative from Spirit Lake reportedly bestowed to the university permanent rights to use the nickname.
"UND has helped a lot of Indian students," Twinn said. "It should stay."
The Standing Rock reservation straddles the North and South Dakota border and is home to about 9,000 people, more than half of whom live in North Dakota. Elections for tribal chairman typically draw up to 2,000 voters.
Lawrence Miller, an employee at the tribe's casino, said it makes little sense to change the name. However, he acknowledges that he didn't vote.
"What are they going to call themselves, the Holsteins? Or the Cow Milkers?" Miller said.
Bubba Standing Bear, who spent Wednesday herding cows on horseback, said he would have approved the measure had he been old enough to vote.
"To me it really doesn't matter. It's just a name," he said. "I didn't think it was disrespectful. I know a lot of the old people might not like it but I think it is respectful."
Erich Longie, an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake tribe who has been an outspoken critic against the nickname, said UND T-shirts and other giveaways encouraged about two-thirds of 1,100 members of that tribe to endorse the name in 2009. He said only 70 people on the Spirit Lake reservation voted Tuesday.
"They didn't have all the free stuff to pass out," Longie said. "It shows you how much people cared about the vote."
The state Board of Higher Education is expected to vote Thursday at its meeting in Fargo on whether to direct UND to resume efforts to retire the nickname. The board in February told UND to resume using the moniker after petitions were approved for Tuesday's ballot measure.
Even if it does push the school to retire the name, the saga may not be over. A group is collecting signatures for another ballot measure – possibly as early as November – that would make the Fighting Sioux name an official part of the state constitution.
Tim O'Keefe, the UND Alumni Association and Foundation executive vice president and CEO, expressed hope in a statement Wednesday that the nickname backers would honor the election results and let the rebuilding begin.
"Too many relationships have been tested by the debate, and we now need to come together to advance the tremendous growth and potential of UND as a world-class institution," O'Keefe said.
Kolpack reported from Fargo, N.D.