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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published April 30 2012

UND alumni, fundraising groups to begin campaign on Fighting Sioux vote

GRAND FORKS- Leaders of the the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation have scheduled news conferences in Grand Forks and other North Dakota cities Tuesday to announce a campaign supporting a June 12 ballot measure that would allow UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname.

One concern driving the campaign: likely confusion over what the ballot measure would mean, due to the convoluted history of the nickname issue as it has pinballed through UND, the state Board of Higher Education, the NCAA, the North Dakota Legislature, state and federal courts and now a statewide vote.

As Measure 4 will appear on the ballot, approval would allow UND to drop the nickname by upholding the Legislature’s November repeal of a law adopted earlier last year requiring UND to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname.

Tim O’Keefe, executive vice president of the UND Alumni Association, and Rick Burgum, chairman of the foundation, will join local UND alumni at the news conferences in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck and Minot.

O’Keefe, Burgum and other alumni leaders have spoken against efforts to retain the nickname, saying they fear serious consequences for UND’s athletics program and student athletes.

During a November special legislative session called in part to consider repealing the nickname law adopted earlier in 2011, Burgum spoke for repeal of the law.

The NCAA, which adopted a policy aimed at discouraging use of American Indian names and imagery by member schools, has placed sanctions on UND for continuing to use the name. The university had begun to retire the Fighting Sioux name but was forced to restore it with passage of the state law last spring. The transition was restarted following repeal of the nickname law but halted again by the filing of petitions referring the repeal.

Tuesday’s news conferences are to begin at 9 a.m. in Fargo, with sessions at 11:30 a.m. in Bismarck, 1:30 p.m. in Minot and a final news conference at 4 p.m. at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

Milo Smith, a spokesman for the Alumni Association, said the groups have retained Odney, a Bismarck political consulting company, to help with the campaign. A budget is developing, he said, and “we will solicit donations from alumni and anyone who wants to take part.”

Smith said UND and the state Board of Higher Education “are aware of the campaign but have not been involved in planning it.”

The fight over the nickname has been especially difficult and emotional for UND alumni, who have found themselves on all sides of the issue. In recent months, however, leaders of the association and foundation have declared — often reluctantly — support for retirement, concerned that NCAA sanctions and other possible consequences could damage or even destroy UND’s athletics programs.

Burgum, a grain dealer from Arthur, N.D., introduced himself as “a proud graduate of UND” and chairman of the foundation board when he testified before a joint House-Senate committee considering the nickname during the November special session.

He said that UND needs to “memorialize the strong traditions” associated with the name and logo, and “in many of our hearts, the Sioux name and logo will always remain,” but that the NCAA “has spoken with finality” and people need to recognize that it’s time to stop fighting.

Burgum presented lawmakers with letters with similar pleas and reasoning from past presidents of the Alumni Association and former Gov. Al Olson, as well as a letter from former UND star and Minnesota Viking Jim Kleinsasser and his sister, Sheri Kleinsasser Stockmoe, also a former Sioux athlete.

The Legislature repealed the nickname law, but nickname supporters led by the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe launched a petition drive to “repeal the repeal,” setting the stage for the June 12 primary vote.

O’Keefe was not immediately available to comment today. In February, he wrote to the state’s newspapers warning that UND’s future, “athletically, academically, in stature and in reputation,” is at stake nickname supporters force the university to keep it.

He said the issues and dangers “have extended themselves way beyond the sanctions imposed by the NCAA, as traditional and potential competitors “have clearly made known their absolute unwillingness to compete with UND as the Fighting Sioux. It is beyond naïve and inaccurate to suggest these facts are wrong.”

He said he respects those who have sought through petition drives to bring about statewide votes on the nickname issue, but “I am completely opposed” to the aim of the drives because of the risks to the university.