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Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald, Published February 14 2012

'Allow us to move on': UND student president asks N.D. citizens to let nickname fight end

In an open letter addressed Tuesday to “the citizens of the state of North Dakota,” UND’s student body president urged that people allow the university and its students to put the Fighting Sioux nickname controversy behind them.

Kylie Michelle Oversen’s plea was particularly aimed at people seeking to keep the nickname.

“Consider the true implications and consequences that your actions will have on our university,” she wrote. “Please allow us to move on past this issue and to focus on our true mission as an institution of higher education.”

Oversen, a senior in social work from Killdeer, N.D., offered a similar statement Monday when she was asked to comment during a meeting of the State Board of Higher Education. She listened with UND President Robert Kelley as the board, meeting via conference call, asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to take the issue to the state Supreme Court.

Asked by Robert Vallie, the appointed student member of the board, how UND students feel about the ongoing controversy, Oversen said she couldn’t speak for all students because they continue to be “torn” over the issue.

“I know there’s a large number of students who disagree with this,” she said Tuesday, referring to her letter. “But I’m in a position of leadership, and I believe someone needs to say something.”

In her letter, Oversen wrote that “political debate and constant media battle back and forth over this issue” has become extremely detrimental to our institution and more importantly to our students.

“I strongly believe that it is truly in the best interests of our students to continue the transition.”

Besides potential negative effects on UND’s athletics program, she cited “an overall frustration and exhaustion” on campus.

“I think what North Dakota has forgotten, through all of this, is that the people most affected by this issue are those (who) are on the campus in Grand Forks every day.”

Sean Johnson, a spokesman for the pro-nickname petition drives, disputed that.

“They have a stake, but the ones consistently overlooked in this issue are the Sioux people themselves,” he said. “They are the ones fighting hardest to keep their name associated with UND, and have the most to lose if it is retired.

“This effort to remove the name is a direct affront to their heritage, traditions, and culture. We as North Dakotans have an obligation to respect this culture, and their desire to have their name remain associated with UND.”

Johnson also claimed “tremendous support from the student body on the UND campus, as evidenced by the numbers who signed the petitions” and “stand with us in recognizing that the people of North Dakota have the right to have their say noted through the ballot box.”

‘Late to the game’

UND’s Student Senate adopted a resolution supporting retirement of the nickname last spring, as the Legislature passed a law requiring UND to retain the Fighting Sioux name and logo, and in November, Oversen testified for repeal of that law during the Legislature’s special session.

It was repealed, but that action was suspended — and the April nickname mandate revived — when nickname supporters filed petitions last week to refer the question to a statewide vote in the June primary election.

At Monday’s meeting, the State Board of Higher Education asked Stenehjem to seek an injunction from the Supreme Court declaring the April law to be unconstitutional, which would derail the referral.

Oversen said she supports that action but wishes it had come sooner.

“I think they were a little late to the game,” she said. “Same with the attorney general,” who told board members during the meeting that he believes the court, if asked to review the nickname law, would find it unconstitutional.

“I think they finally realized they needed to take responsibility,” Oversen said.

She said student leaders have talked about mounting “an education campaign so students and others around the state can see the consequences” of continuing with the Fighting Sioux nickname.

“We’ll wait to see what happens with the State Board” and the appeal to the state Supreme Court, she said.

Oversen said she expects some pushback from students who favor keeping the nickname, but there hasn’t been much feedback on the issue so far.

“I know a lot of our students are tired of it,” she said, “or they feel it doesn’t matter anymore what we think. It’s been out of our hands for a long time.”

She said she has heard from some American Indian students, including several who were upset when pro-nickname people came on campus to circulate their petitions.

“They were worried that students who were signing were not aware of what they were signing and how it could hurt them and the university.”