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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published February 02 2012

UND Fighting Sioux nickname vote push extends across North Dakota

GRAND FORKS – Just five days from the deadline, a leader of the effort to put the shelved Fighting Sioux nickname to a statewide vote said the petitioning is extending to cities across the state as organizers get in “striking distance” of the needed 13,500 signatures.

Sean Johnson of Bismarck said the effort to put the former nickname of the University of North Dakota issue on the June 12 primary election ballot is making a final push with “petition signing events” through Monday in Fargo, Devils Lake and Minot and at the state Capitol in Bismarck. But no such centralized effort is planned in Grand Forks.

“The center of our operations these last few days is going to be more in these other locations, and we feel confident we can reach our goal,” he said.

Rusty Papachek, general manager at West Acres, said representatives of the petition sponsoring committee approached mall officials about a week ago, applied for a space and agreed to abide by certain conditions. The request was granted for Thursday only.

“They have their table just off the food court, and they’re not allowed to go out and solicit or campaign,” Papachek said. “We try to protect our private property rights, and we want to treat every petition drive the same.”

He said the last request for a table in the mall to collect petition signatures was made in 2008 by a man who hoped to seek public office. That request was approved, but Papachek said he didn’t believe the man showed up.

The nickname supporters tried to gain access to Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks to work the crowds at UND hockey games last month against Harvard, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They were denied access inside by arena officials, an action upheld in Grand Forks County District Court.

Despite that setback, Johnson said, “We’ve had great success (working outside) at the hockey games at UND and, believe it or not, at the (North Dakota State University) Bison football game” in Fargo last month.

“We got between 500 and 600 signatures on each petition there,” he said.

He said he’s had “great success” at hockey games and other events in Bis-marck, and petition circulators “were hopping at the recent Ag Expo in Minot.”

“We want to make a good push here, and we’re confident we’ll succeed,” Johnson said. “By nature, when there’s a deadline looming, that’s when people take a little more interest and try to get their names on the petitions.”

The referral petitions are aimed at “repealing the repeal,” overturning a law adopted in the November special legislative session that repealed an earlier law requiring UND to retain the nickname. If the petitions bear the required number of signatures, are filed by the deadline and certified by Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the November law will be suspended and the original nickname law will be in effect until voters decide the issue in June.

Nickname supporters are also circulating petitions for an initiated measure to amend North Dakota’s Constitution to declare that UND athletic teams must be the Fighting Sioux. That effort requires the filing of 27,000 signatures by Aug. 8 to make the November general election ballot.

“This whole effort is to allow the people to vote, to choose. We’ll accept the outcome either way. That’s the right thing to do, the American way.”

There has been no obvious active opposition to the petition drive, but many who say they wish the Fighting Sioux name could continue have voiced concern that the referral and initiative could cost UND its membership in the Big Sky Conference and damage the university’s athletics program.

“There’s been some of that” expressed to petition circulators, Johnson said, but nickname supporters respond that UND has been granted Big Sky membership “and they need UND more than UND needs the Big Sky.”

Petition drive locations

With its deadline five days away, organizers of a petition drive to put retention of the Fighting Sioux nickname to a statewide vote in June have fanned out across the state. Here’s where they’ve set up shop:

<•> Fargo: Event was held Thursday at West Acres Shopping Center

<•> Bismarck: Today at the state Capitol

<•> Minot: Today and Monday at Pringle and Herigstad law firm and today through Sunday at a pool and dart tournament at the Holiday Inn

<•> Devils Lake: Through Monday at Mr. and Mrs. J’s Restaurant and Old Main Street Café

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald