Jean-Philippe Lamoureux of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux tends goal during a game in Denver in 2008.

Story highlights

NCAA has a policy against mascots "deemed hostile" to Native Americans

University of North Dakota uses Fighting Sioux nickname and logo

Many citizens want school to continue using them

But NCAA said there would be repercussions

CNN  — 

The dispute between the NCAA and the University of North Dakota over its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo took a new turn Wednesday when the school said the filing of petitions requires it to use the nickname and logo while the issue plays out, possibly in a statewide vote.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has a policy against mascots “deemed hostile or abusive toward Native Americans.”

But people who favor the mascot filed petitions Tuesday with North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

The petitioners have a two-pronged strategy.

One move calls for the state constitution to be changed in order to stipulate the use of the Fighting Sioux name. If certified, that measure would be on the November ballot. Petitioners have until August to submit signatures.

The other effort calls for voters to decide in June whether to repeal a law that permitted the school to drop the name. Those petitions were filed this week.

In the meantime, university President Robert Kelley said the school is resuming the use of the name and logo.

“I want to reaffirm our respect for the laws of the state and the processes guaranteed under the North Dakota Constitution,” he said in a statement.

The NCAA said Wednesday the “university is subject to the terms of the policy if it uses the logo and nickname.”

“Those terms include not being able to host NCAA championship events and a prohibition against using the nickname and imagery on uniforms for student-athletes, along with cheerleaders, (the) mascot or band members, in any NCAA championships,” said Erik Christianson, NCAA director of media relations, in a statement.

The wrangling has been complicated.

The state Legislature in early 2011 passed a law requiring the university to use the Fighting Sioux nickname. But that law was repealed in November 2011 when legislators approved a bill that allowed the school to stop using the moniker.

The state requires 13,452 certified signatures to put the law repeal issue before voters. North Dakota has about 684,000 residents. Petition supporters said they turned in more than the minimum number of signatures.

“By filing the petitions last night, the law as passed in early 2011 is now again in effect,” Jaeger told CNN on Wednesday. “The law passed in November 2011 is now suspended. I have 35 days to review the petitions. If I find the petitions sufficient, it will be certified for the ballot. If not, the bill passed in November will again become the law.”

UND’s rock-and-a-hard-place scenario marks the last gasp of a years-long controversy: North Dakota is the last holdout in the NCAA’s campaign to get schools to drop their Native American monikers or get tribal blessings to keep them.

In 2007, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education agreed to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname by August 15, 2011, in accordance with the NCAA’s then-2-year-old policy on Native American mascots.

Doug Fullerton will be paying close attention to what plays out. As commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, he is overseeing North Dakota’s ascent from Division II obscurity to the far more lucrative stage of Division I.

“When we invited (North Dakota’s football team) into the (Big Sky) conference, this was not an issue,” he said last summer.

Citing the conference’s “close, close ties to Native American tribes” and the threat of boycotts, Fullerton said that he was on ‘heightened alert’ Wednesday, noting that North Dakota’s conference membership – slated to begin July 1 – could be rescinded if the college presidents within Big Sky so decide.

The 13 college presidents of the Big Sky Conference – including Robert Kelley of North Dakota – are scheduled to meet in early June, according to Fullerton.

A message left by CNN with the North Dakota University System was not immediately returned Wednesday.

In 2005, the NCAA sought to end the longstanding controversy surrounding Native American mascots once and for all by ordering nearly 20 schools whose nicknames and mascots they deemed “abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin” to either get Native American permission to use their name and likeness, or to come up with a new one.

The resulting actions varied among the targeted schools. The Arkansas State Indians became the Red Wolves; the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Indians became the Crimson Hawks.

Other schools satisfied the mandate by tweaking their name, like Southeastern Oklahoma State, where the Savages are now known as the Savage Storm. Others, like the Bradley University Braves, whose name does not affiliate with a specific tribe, were allowed to keep their name so long as Native American logos and imagery were eschewed.

Schools with higher-profile athletic programs fared better. The Florida State Seminoles, University of Utah Utes and Central Michigan University Chippewas each obtained permission from their respective namesake tribes to stay the course.

But the North Dakota Fighting Sioux – winners of seven national championships in men’s ice hockey – were denied such an endorsement from the Tribal Council of the Standing Rock Sioux.