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Chuck Haga / Forum Communications Co., Published October 07 2011

Spirit Lake looks to Big Sky again in support of Fighting Sioux nickname

GRAND FORKS – Fighting Sioux nickname supporters at the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation have again contacted the Big Sky Conference commissioner to underscore their commitment to seeing UND continue using the name.

In a letter dated Sept. 30, leaders of the Committee for Understanding and Respect reminded commissioner Doug Fullerton that they speak for the tribe, citing a resolution adopted by the Tribal Council on Sept. 2.

The resolution, adopted unanimously, noted that the council and an earlier tribal referendum “affirmatively approved and supported UND’s use of the name and imagery of the Fighting Sioux.”

With the “overwhelming support of the people of this tribe,” the resolution continued, the tribe “entrusted UND with the responsibility of working with the tribe to increase the number of Native American graduates from Spirit Lake and create a Native American program on the UND campus which would bring respect and understanding amongst all students, faculty and staff at UND.”

The council resolution endorsed actions of the Committee for Understanding and Respect and declared the committee was authorized “to act on behalf of the Spirit Lake Tribe to seek outside resources and support to defend Spirit Lake’s voice and UND’s right to retain the Fighting Sioux name.”

As reported earlier, the council resolution also authorized the committee to pursue “a statewide initiated measure on behalf of the Spirit Lake Tribe.”

In its first letter to Fullerton, dated Sept. 26, committee chairman and Spirit Lake elder John Chaske wrote that the tribe continues to strongly support UND’s continued use of the name and interprets efforts to bring about its retirement “a direct attack against our race, customs, traditions, culture and people.”

Fullerton said Thursday he was not responding to the committee’s letters because “the discussion they’re carrying on is not my issue, and that’s not the issue our presidents are concerned about.”

In an interview with the Grand Forks Herald on Sept. 27, Fullerton said he had not and would not “get into the debate” over whether the nickname should be retired, but he warned again that UND could become “a marginalized Division I program” because of how the NCAA and other schools respond to the ongoing dispute.

“I’m not making any value judgment on use of the Sioux name,” Fullerton said in the interview. “But if they become marginalized, they become of less use to the Big Sky Conference.”

Presidents of conference schools are to meet Oct. 18-19 in Park City, Utah, and expect to hear another report from UND president Robert Kelley on where the long-running nickname issue stands.

“I’m not sure he’ll have a lot to report before November,” when the North Dakota Legislature is expected to take up the nickname issue again, “but we understand that,” Fullerton said Thursday.

Abiding by a law adopted by the 2011 Legislature, UND continues to use the Fighting Sioux name and Indian-head logo, which in August triggered long-threatened sanctions from the NCAA. The athletics organization has since 2005 sought to eliminate the use of Native American names and imagery from member schools.

The Legislature is scheduled to take up the nickname issue again in the November special session, and statements by various members – including the full Grand Forks delegation – have suggested the nickname law will be repealed or altered to give final authority to the State Board of Higher Education.

The board has directed UND to prepare for a transition away from the nickname and have that process substantially completed by the end of the year.

In the Sept. 30 letter to Fullerton, signed by Chaske and Eunice Davidson, the committee’s secretary, the Spirit Lake representatives criticized Fullerton for not responding directly to their first letter.

“The bottom line is when we speak, we are speaking for the people” of the tribe, they wrote, and “we will not allow our word and our sacred ceremonies to be disrespected via the NCAA policy and your mischaracterization about who we are and who we represent.”

The tribe “is shocked, disappointed and indignant concerning your apparent refusal to answer our questions,” the letter states.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald