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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published January 27 2011

UPDATED: Passionate pleas from both sides in "Fighting Sioux" legislative committee hearing

BISMARCK – Members of the state Board of Higher Education did all they could over the past three years to afford the people of North Dakota’s two Sioux Indian tribes opportunities to speak to the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” nickname controversy, board Vice President Grant Shaft told a legislative committee Wednesday.

That included direct appeals to tribal leaders, formation of a statewide committee that sought to engage tribal leadership, renewing outreach to the Standing Rock tribe after a tribal election there, and watching to see what happened with referendum efforts at the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations.

“I am unable to think of any additional action, nor has anyone been able to suggest additional action, that the state Board of Higher Education or any government official or any tribal or private party could have taken to secure the approval of both tribes,” Shaft told members of the House Education Committee.

The committee is considering three bills that would have the university and state board halt the transition process and restore the 80-year-old symbols, and members heard more than eight hours of often passionate testimony from dozens of people on both sides of the issue.

“We told you no,” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard of Standing Rock said as the hearing stretched into the evening. It had begun at 9 a.m., broke for lunch and a brief floor session, then resumed at 2 p.m. and continued past 7 p.m.

“We’ll tell you no again,” Brave Bull Allard said, speaking forcefully. “And my grandchildren will be here to tell you no.”

But John Chaske, an elder of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, also cited grandchildren – as well as history, tradition, a tribal referendum and other factors – as he sought to persuade legislators to join the fight to preserve the nickname and logo.

“I took my two grandchildren to see a hockey game” at Ralph Engelstad Arena, he said during morning testimony. “I saw the pride swell in these two children. They were proud to be Sioux at that moment.

“Why would anyone want to destroy this?”

Chaske was among about a dozen people who spoke for retaining the nickname and logo, which UND is transitioning away from under direction from the state Board of Higher Education. About as many opponents sat through that parade, then offered their own testimony.

Several proponents of keeping the symbols suggested that the state board had not handled the matter well and had wasted chances to win authorization to retain the nickname and logo.

Shaft, a Grand Forks attorney, said he wasn’t appearing either to support or oppose the legislative efforts but to explain the process the board went through since the 2007 settlement with the NCAA, which left open the possibility that the name and logo could be kept if the board won the approval of both namesake Sioux tribes.

Shaft said he had “primary responsibility for addressing the nickname issue” on the board, and he outlined a series of steps taken by the board and chancellor – and the consistent opposition raised by the Standing Rock Tribal Council.

Shaft also challenged a news report Tuesday that quoted Tom Douple, commissioner of the Summit League, as saying UND President Robert Kelley pressured him to publicly speak about the nickname issue being a problem for UND’s application for league membership.

When North Dakota University System Chancellor William Goetz and others went to see the commissioner at league headquarters in Chicago, “I was one of the board members who attended that meeting,” Shaft said, “and I have to take issue with Mr. Douple’s comment.”

Opponents, proponents

Jon Backes, president of the state board, supports the legislative process, but said the board is neutral on the bills.

“I understand fully the emotion that comes with this issue,” he said. But “the popularity of the nickname and logo are a tribute to the manner in which UND portrays them.”

Speakers against the nickname bills included Rep. Lonnie Winrich, D-Grand Forks.

He said the symbols have caused controversy and “rancor” on campus ever since he joined the UND faculty in 1985. Also, UND and the state “can’t exist in a vacuum,” oblivious to a strong movement across the country against the use of American Indian names and symbols for athletic teams.

He was questioned by Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan and the committee chair, who said she graduated from UND in the 1980s “and I don’t remember the controversy.”

It often stemmed “from overzealous attempts to belittle opponents,” Winrich said. “I don’t believe there are deliberate attempts by members of the university community to show disrespect,” he said, but rather “incidental things” that grew out of the presence and use of the nickname.

Jesse Taken Alive, a Standing Rock Tribal Council member and longtime opponent of the nickname, said he was “deeply offended by some of the comments made about our government today,” including complaints by Spirit Lake and Standing Rock members that the council wouldn’t let the people of Standing Rock speak through a referendum.

“We’ve done this since 1992,” he said, citing a series of council actions against UND’s use of the name and logo.

“We don’t want this to be a divisive issue on our reservation,” he said. “The policy of ‘divide and conquer’ contributed to our demise, and our young people continually tell us this.”

Several American Indian students at UND also asked lawmakers not to extend the issue, saying the nickname and logo did contribute to an atmosphere where racist and abusive incidents occurred. Birgit Hans, chair of UND’s department of Indian Studies, said the continuing controversy “makes it impossible for faculty and staff at UND to perform our academic mission.”

Long day of testimony

Kelsch started Wednesday’s hearing with a warning to the more than 150 people who packed a large hearing room. “Potentially, these hearings could become emotional, perhaps contentious,” she said, and she promised “one warning” before she would order the ejection of people who were disruptive.

Two of the bills under consideration would direct UND and the state board to restore the nickname and logo unless they received a formal notice from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposing their use. The third bill, introduced by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo and House majority leader, would simply declare that UND athletic teams “shall be known as ... the Fighting Sioux,” and any transition steps taken so far would be pre-empted.

“We’re here to hear what the people have to say” about the name and logo, Carlson said, referring to failed attempts to arrange a referendum on the issue at Standing Rock.

Under terms of a lawsuit settlement between the state board and the NCAA, which had threatened sanctions against UND athletics if the “hostile and abusive” nickname and logo were not retired, the board was given time to seek approval for their use from Spirit Lake and Standing Rock.

Spirit Lake voters overwhelmingly gave their OK, but repeated attempts to arrange a vote at Standing Rock were thwarted by the tribal government, which reaffirmed earlier Tribal Council resolutions opposing use of the Sioux name and imagery.

Carlson said the matter “was poorly handled” by the state board.

“This is North Dakota history,” Carlson said of the longtime symbols at UND and the 1969 ceremony involving several elders from Standing Rock who made former UND President George Starcher an honorary chief and authorized use of the nickname.

“That was a big deal,” Carlson said.

Eunice Davidson, leader of the Committee for Understanding and Respect formed at Spirit Lake to champion the Fighting Sioux nickname, told lawmakers that she and many other members of the tribe take pride in its use at UND.

“When I was very young, I had a lot of negative (experiences) in my life,” she said, but “I started to feel better about myself” because of the respect shown the name.

“If it were not for that name, I would not have the strength to stand here today,” she said. “I never thought of it as derogatory or abusive.”

Several enrolled members of the Standing Rock tribe also spoke for the nickname and the bills designed to sustain it.

Linus End of Horn, who said he is a blood descendant of Chief Gall, “who stood beside Sitting Bull,” attended the 2008 flag ceremony at UND. He was on leave from the U.S. Armed Forces at the time.

“I am a fighting Sioux,” he said, and the experience at UND convinced him that “we as Sioux people will always be remembered through this school” and its use of the name and logo.

Kelsch said the committee probably won’t act on the three bills until next week and possibly later.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald