Voters in North Dakota on Tuesday overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to abolish the state university's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and Indian head logo, banned under a national college sports policy that deems such symbols as racially offensive.
More than 67 percent of voters supported the move that will allow the University of North Dakota to end its use of the nickname and logo - based on a Native American caricature - in order to avoid possible sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
However, supporters of the symbol have said they will continue their fight to retain the "Fighting Sioux" name and logo after years of appealing to alumni and to the state Legislature, which just last year passed a law to keep the images, only to then reverse itself with a repeal.
The university's alumni association and foundation had stayed neutral on the topic for decades, but in early February stepped in to support retiring the nickname and logo, spending $250,000 on the issue.
"The issue wasn't preference. If that were the case than clearly the name would be staying," said Tim O'Keefe, executive vice president and CEO of the alumni association and foundation. "It was about the significant price the University of North Dakota athletic program would pay under NCAA sanctions."
The NCAA, which governs college sports, adopted a policy in 2005 to bar images considered offensive by some Native American groups, but allows schools to use them if they gain approval from namesake groups.
It bars schools that don't from hosting championship events or wearing uniforms with the images during NCAA playoffs.
Retention of the name and logo could also make it harder to recruit players, complete athletic conference affiliations and schedule some opponents.
O'Keefe, who played hockey at North Dakota from 1967 to 1971, said the debate "has brought great division to a passionate and loyal alumni and friend base."
The NCAA had given North Dakota three years to obtain permission from two namesake tribes. One tribe approved, but the second never voted on the request, forcing the university to prepare to abolish the nickname and logo.
North Dakota lawmakers did intervene, passing a law in early 2011 that required the university to keep the name and logo, but repealed it months later under the threat of NCAA sanctions. Nickname supporters then gathered enough signatures to force the statewide vote held on Tuesday.
Indian mascots, nicknames and logos have been used widely in U.S. sports, and approval of their continued use or retirement by major universities has been mixed.
Under pressure from the NCAA, the University of Illinois retired its Chief Illiniwek mascot, who danced on the field at football games, but the namesake Seminole tribe approved Florida State University's continued presentation of a mascot who wears an Indian headdress and rides horseback at football games.
(Reporting and writing by David Bailey; Editing by Steve Gorman and Andrew Osborn)