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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published February 20 2012

Fighting Sioux nickname petitioners report ‘continued strong support’

GRAND FORKS – The campaign to preserve UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname reported “continued strong support from North Dakotans” after another weekend of soliciting signatures for an initiated measure to secure the name in the state constitution.

As they await Supreme Court action on their referendum to “repeal the repeal” at the June primary, nickname supporters said Monday they are better than halfway to collecting the 27,000 signatures they need to get the constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot.

The Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe’s pro-nickname Committee for Understanding and Respect filed petitions bearing more than 17,000 signatures on Feb. 7 to refer action by the November special session of the Legislature, which allowed UND and the State Board of Higher Education to proceed with retirement of the nickname and logo.

That prompted the board to ask Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to seek a declaratory judgment from the high court on the constitutionality of the law, adopted in April but repealed in November, requiring UND to keep the name.

Stenehjem asked the court for an expedited hearing of the issue.

As they circulated their referral petitions, nickname supporters also collected signatures on separate petitions for the constitutional amendment. The deadline for filing to get on the November ballot is Aug. 8.

Sean Johnson, a spokesman for the petition drives, said volunteers worked the UND men’s hockey games and the state high school wrestling meet in Bismarck this past weekend and probably have topped 18,000 signatures.

“We were well received,” said Eunice Davidson, a member of the Committee for Understanding and Respect. “Lots of people stopped by who had already signed and said they are so happy we are doing this – to give the citizens of North Dakota a chance to stand with the Sioux people. Lots of hugs.”

Davidson estimated receiving at least 200 new signatures on the initiated measure petition, even though volunteers have been working the Ralph Engelstad Arena site since early January.

In Bismarck, too, “the support we have has never been stronger,” Johnson said.

“People have gone out of their way to let us know they stand with us,” he said. “They see this fight to save the name is about more than athletics. This is about standing on truth and principle. They also want a vote of the people on this issue, and frankly are quite upset that there are ongoing efforts to deny them that vote, similar to what happened at Standing Rock Sioux Nation.”

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court on Friday, Stenehjem also asked the court to enjoin Secretary of State Al Jaeger from putting the referral on the June ballot.

The Committee for Understanding and Respect also is suing the NCAA over the association’s policy on the use of American Indian names, logos and imagery by member schools. By continuing to use the Fighting Sioux name, UND is in noncompliance and subject to NCAA sanctions.

In a flurry of statements issued last week, school officials and others with ties to UND warned that sanctions posed a danger to UND’s transition to Division I status, its conference affiliation and athletic recruiting. Nickname supporters have disputed the likelihood or severity of those consequences and accused UND administrators and others of orchestrating a groundless fear campaign.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald