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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published November 17 2011

Statewide vote on Fighting Sioux nickname sought

GRAND FORKS – Spirit Lake supporters of the embattled nickname of the University of North Dakota will try to force a statewide public vote on whether UND must be known as the Fighting Sioux, overruling the recent repeal of a state law that required the same.

“It’s the right thing to do, and I’m very confident we can get the signatures we need,” said Reed Soderstrom, an attorney representing the Spirit Lake committee.

Two veteran players on North Dakota’s political scene said Thursday the nickname backers may face an uphill climb to get the question on the November 2012 general election ballot.

Lloyd Omdahl, a retired professor of political science at UND and a former North Dakota lieutenant governor, said their success will depend on how well they’re organized.

Soderstrom said nickname supporters plan to petition for a constitutional amendment, which would require 27,000 signatures, as well as a referendum on the Legislature’s action last week, when a law enacted in the spring requiring UND to keep the name and logo was repealed.

A referred measure would be on the ballot in the June 2012 primary election, but the petitions would have to be in the secretary of state’s office within 90 days of when Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the repeal bill on Nov. 9. There would be more time to mount a campaign for an initiated constitutional amendment, which would go to voters in November.

“We’re going to try both,” Soderstrom said. “The time is short for the referral, but it will be good experience for us, a good lesson for what we need to do to get the constitutional amendment on the general election ballot.”

He said he hopes to have the petition forms ready for approval by next week, with petitions circulating for within two weeks.

“We have the holiday rush coming up, and we can work kiosks in the malls,” he said, “and we’ll have the county and state fairs next summer. I think we can raise an army of people who will work in their own spheres of influence. Everybody can get 25 signatures.”

With the Legislature’s repeal last week, UND is set to abide by a state Board of Higher Education directive that retirement of the Fighting Sioux name and logo be substantially completed by Dec. 31.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said “27,000 signatures is a lot,” but referring the repeal law – while requiring half as many signatures – could leave the nickname open to a constitutional challenge.

One of the last successful constitutional amendments advanced through an initiated measure was the 2002 proposal to have North Dakota join a multistate lottery, Holmberg said.

More recently, the League of Women Voters “worked for a year on an initiated measure to set up a commission to do (legislative) redistricting, and they got just 5,000 signatures,” Holmberg said.

Omdahl drafted the language for an initiated measure in the 1960s that gave North Dakota its “secret ballot” in primary elections, where a voter doesn’t have to ask for a Republican or Democrat or other party ballot by name.

It’s usually not an easy task, Omdahl said.

“If the UND Alumni Association, for example, lent its resources to the effort and got people recruited to carry those petitions, it would be easy” to collect 27,000 signatures, he said. “But without an army to do that, it would be a difficult chore.

“And I don’t think the alumni association or any organization with knowledgeable leadership would participate because it would hurt UND.”

Soderstrom, a 1990 UND law graduate who is volunteering his work for the Spirit Lake committee, said Thursday he still believes “there’s a way out of this” with the NCAA allowing UND “a limited exemption” from its policy seeking to eliminate the use of American Indian names, mascots and imagery by member schools.

The NCAA did grant exemptions to the Florida State Seminoles and others who showed American Indian support for use of their name, he said.

But the petitioners face a major hurdle in persuading people that putting “Fighting Sioux” in the state constitution won’t seriously damage UND.

“If it were to pass and prohibit UND from dropping the name, the NCAA is still going to hold onto their position, which will put UND teams in a very unfavorable position in league play and playoffs,” Omdahl said.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald