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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published October 19 2011

Fargo legislator’s bill to repeal Fighting Sioux law

GRAND FORKS – Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said today that he has a bill ready for the November special session of the Legislature that would repeal the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname law adopted earlier this year.

“No muss, no fuss – just overturn what we did in the past legislative session,” he said.

“It would be the cleanest, simplest way to get back to the process that was already decided upon and in place wherein the Board of Higher Education and the University of North Dakota had made some decisions.”

Mathern, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986 and was the Democrats’ candidate for governor in 2008, said repeal would remove “the question of constitutionality that came with the Legislature intervening in board affairs.”

Repeal would take effect on Dec. 1, according to the bill draft filed with the Legislative Council.

Mathern said he expects a repeal bill will pass.

“I think the general sentiment is yes, this will be repealed,” he said. “I think it will pass at a higher level in the Senate. It probably is going to be more difficult in the House, but I believe it will pass there as well.

“There will be considerable discussion, including about the costs involved. But I believe at the end there will be a repeal of the law that was passed.”

That law, which directs UND to retain its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, was introduced by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and passed by wide margins in both chambers after supporters mounted an email campaign that legislators said was the heaviest they’d ever seen.

But some legislators have said they backed the Carlson bill partly because they saw it as leverage for state leaders to take to the NCAA in August and press for changes in the athletics association’s posture toward UND and the university’s noncompliance with the NCAA policy against use of American Indian names and imagery.

The NCAA did not budge despite appeals from a delegation that included the governor, attorney general and legislative leaders, and UND has been under sanctions since Aug. 15. President Robert Kelley and Brian Faison, director of athletics, have warned that continuing uncertainty regarding the nickname and sanctions could seriously jeopardize UND athletics, including costing the university admission to the Big Sky Conference.

One legislator who voted for Carlson’s nickname bill, Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, has said he is working on a bill that would assign authority for the nickname and logo issue to the higher education board.

Mathern, who said he had his repeal bill drafted “some time ago,” said he could support Laffen’s bill if it accomplishes the same result.

“I think people will be looking at (my) bill and either introducing it themselves or ask to sign on to this bill,” he said. Other legislators may offer variations.

Mathern said all bill drafts will be screened by legislative leaders acting as a rules or delayed bills committee, and they likely would allow one nickname bill to advance.

The special session begins Nov. 7 and is expected to last a week, though lawmakers face other difficult matters – legislative redistricting, health care and flood recovery – as well as the UND nickname.

Noting recent comments from people speaking for the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, urging retention of the nickname and warning of “severe consequences” if it is dropped, Mathern said no resolution of the long-simmering controversy will satisfy everyone.

“Those comments reflect the fact there is continuing debate not only in the non-Indian community but also in the Native American community,” he said. “That will continue forever. It will never be 100 percent unanimity of opinion about this.

“But I have no doubt that whenever you equate a mascot with a people, there will be some people hurt and discouraged, and there will be other people who will see it as a positive. But in the long run, we should never be doing anything that we know hurts or discourages some.

“It’s not just a question of who has the majority,” he said. “It is also a question of protecting the values and respect of the minority. That’s the challenge before us.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald