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Buck Striebel holds up a University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux T-shirt while his wife, GaeLynn, sorts through other shirts on sale at a sporting goods store in Bismarck, N.D., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Buck Striebel, a graduate of North Dakota State University, said he would vote to keep the nickname of the rival school. GaeLynn, and the couple’s son, Robert, are UND graduates and said they would vote to get rid of the controversial nickname.James MacPherson/The Associated Press

North Dakota is usually associated with hard-working farmers and sensible politicians. But for the past seven years, the state has been bitterly divided over an unlikely issue: the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname.

Opponents of the name, including the NCAA, argue it's offensive to native Americans and point to a national effort by the NCAA to remove similar nicknames at more than a dozen other universities. Supporters of the name – who include one of the state's Sioux tribes – say the 80-year-old nickname honours Sioux people and the NCAA has no business telling North Dakotans what to do.

Now after years of legal wrangling, failed legislative moves, vicious accusations and even death threats, the issue has landed on a state-wide ballot. On Tuesday, North Dakotans voted approximately 60 per cent in favour of dropping the nickname "Fighting Sioux."

For people like Eunice Davidson, this will be hard to accept. Ms. Davidson is a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe and she has spent weeks crisscrossing the state as part of a Save the Sioux Truth Tour. "I'm proud of the name," she said Tuesday. The name "honours our heritage."

The debate began in 2005 when the NCAA ordered 18 universities to drop native American logos, mascots and nicknames. Some universities, notably Florida State which uses the nickname the Seminoles, were allowed to keep their names after reaching agreements with local tribes. But UND couldn't manage that because of divisions among the state's two Sioux reservations; Spirit Lake supported the name but Standing Rock Sioux Tribe didn't. That led to a series of lawsuits against the NCAA by Spirit Lake and an attempt by the state legislature to pass a law requiring the university to keep the nickname.

When the NCAA refused to give in, the legislature backtracked and repealed the legislation. Supporters of the nickname immediately gathered up 14,000 names on a petition, enough to get the issue on Tuesday's ballot.

"It hasn't been fun for any of us," said Tim O'Keefe, a former Fighting Sioux hockey player and head of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation which spent $250,000 on television ads urging voters to drop the name.

Ms. Davidson and other Fighting Sioux supporters say the fight won't end Tuesday. They are already gathering up signatures for another vote in the fall. "I have a true Fighting Sioux spirit," she said. "Just like my ancestors."