FARGO, N.D. (AP) — More than two months after the University of North Dakota officially dropped its divisive nickname, the public address announcer at a women's basketball game welcomed it back with a familiar roar: "Here come your Fighting Sioux!"
Last week's return was bittersweet for some supporters of the moniker, reportedly born some 80 years ago from anonymous letters to a student newspaper but since decried as racist by many American Indians and the NCAA.
The nickname was resurrected after residents generated 17,000 signatures seeking to put the issue to a statewide vote. As part of that process, a since-repealed state law requiring the school to use the nickname went back into effect — even though the university, the state Board of Higher Education and local lawmakers want it gone.
However, in this decades-old controversy that has endured seven years of legal and political maneuvering, the moniker's supporters are hoping to pull out a last-ditch victory.
"I'm passionate about this," said Doug Samuelson, 36, of Minot, who signed the petition before a Disney On Ice show in Bismarck. "I guess I feel it's never been a race issue. I always thought it was more about pride than anything else."
Other North Dakota residents, some of whom even back the nickname, have grown weary of the decades-old debate. Steve Huber, a UND graduate, said he did not sign the petition and will vote no on the referendum.
"As hard as this is to say, because I am not a big fan of conceding to those in the minority on an issue, I think it is time to put this thing to bed," said Huber, 37, of Oxbow. "Go with the University of North Dakota. No nickname."
The referendum's backers pooh-poohed state legislators who dropped a push to make the nickname law and brushed aside arguments that NCAA sanctions would hurt the school's athletic programs and its affiliation with the Big Sky Conference.
Some of those signers contacted by The Associated Press said they resent being depicted as hostile to American Indians and being told what to do with the state's flagship university.
A.D. Holm Jr., 56, of Fargo, who attended rival North Dakota State, said he thinks the UND name tradition is important and that there is "resentment" over the push to change it.
UND's athletic teams were first — albeit unofficially — known as the Nodaks beginning in the late 1800s, according to school documents. The student body adopted the name Flickertails in 1911, although a logo was not created. The Sioux nickname was adopted after a campaign by the student newspaper in 1930. It's not clear when it was amended to Fighting Sioux.
The school used various Indian head logos and cartoon illustrations on its uniforms from the 1940s through the 1960s. In 1965, the hockey team began wearing on its jerseys a Blackhawk logo similar to Chicago's NHL team. The school introduced a geometric-shape Indian logo in 1976, but the hockey team continued with the Blackhawk moniker.
The Blackhawk symbol was taken off hockey jerseys in 1993, and in 1999 a new Indian logo designed by UND alumnus Bennett Brien, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa based in North Dakota, was unveiled. The men's hockey team continued to use that logo after the nickname was retired in December and were waiting on new jerseys, school officials said. Other teams dropped the logo.
Minot attorney Reed Soderstrom, chairman of the referendum campaign, has said he hoped the campaign would end arguments about the nickname "once and for all." His group planned to release a statement this week regarding comments by school officials critical of the referendum.
Soderstrom's group is seeking to both restore the state law requiring UND to keep its nickname and change North Dakota's Constitution to say the school's teams will be known as the Fighting Sioux. That petition is due in August.
Brian Faison, the UND athletic director, said the tone has turned more serious among leaders in the Big Sky who don't want the debate on their campuses, and called it another roadblock to recruiting players.
Asked about the number of petition signers, Faison said there are people who don't believe the seriousness of the NCAA penalties or whether the Big Sky will turn its back on UND.
He called "absurd" suggestions that the Big Sky needs UND more than the school needs the conference.
"On the other hand, we all have to understand that there's an absolutely incredible, passionate fan base out there that loves the logo and nickname and they want to do everything they can to see if it can be protected," he said. "The reality for us is, it's going to have all these other consequences that are really going to damage the athletic program."
Troy Krogstad, 43, of Grand Forks, acknowledged he has concerns about the school losing favor with the Big Sky, but he said he signed the petition anyway because he's unhappy voters haven't had their say.
"I don't think a conference like that should dictate what a school does," Krogstad said.
Holm acknowledged possible setbacks to the athletic program, but was hoping that one last push would change the minds of NCAA and conference officials.
"If they can't win this battle without being penalized and losing their conference affiliation, then I think maybe they need to change it," he said. "But they might as well fight, at least, while they still can."