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

Fighting Sioux nickname debate could last into 2014

GRAND FORKS – You’re thinking – hoping maybe – that the Fighting Sioux nickname debate will finally be resolved with the June 12 vote on Measure 4, or at least in November with a vote on a separate initiated measure to enshrine the nickname in the state Constitution.

Take a breath. It may be November, but November 2014.

Reed Soderstrom, the Minot attorney who represents the pro-nickname Committee for Understanding and Respect at the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, said that nickname supporters will continue to collect signatures on petitions for a constitutional amendment after the June 12 vote but may delay filing them to give the state a respite from the long-running fight.

The June vote will be a referendum on the Legislature’s action late last year that cleared the way for UND to retire the nickname, by repealing a law adopted earlier in 2011 that required the university to keep it. Soderstrom led the petition campaign to “repeal the repeal” at the primary election as well as the initiated measure campaign for a constitutional amendment.

The state Board of Higher Education tried unsuccessfully to have the state Supreme Court declare the Legislature’s original keep-the-name mandate declared unconstitutional, and the board is thought likely to renew that challenge if pro-nickname forces prevail in June. A constitutional amendment, of course, would protect against such challenges.

Soderstrom’s group has until early August to file enough signatures to force a vote on the constitutional amendment in November, but he said last week that the filing could be delayed until December, which in turn would delay a vote into the next electoral cycle.

“We’ll see what happens on June 12,” he said. “I’m not sure whether we’ll bring signatures in on Aug. 4 or wait until December, then vote in 2014.

“It may be good for people to go without having to deal with the name for a year or two and then decide.”

Up first: voting

Soderstrom has filed notice with the U.S. District Court in Fargo of his intention to appeal the court’s dismissal of Spirit Lake’s lawsuit against the NCAA, and that process could play out to the end of the year.

Meanwhile, he and other nickname supporters continue their “uphill

battle” to persuade North Dakotans to vote “no” in the primary nine days from today to require UND to keep the nickname.

“We’re still finding a lot of support out there,” Soderstrom said.

“In a primary election, you never know who’s going to show up and vote,” he said. “I’m not making any predictions on the outcome, but I’m thinking it may be close.”

His side doesn’t have the financial support to match TV advertising funded through the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, he said. The ads, produced for the alumni office by Odney Advertising of Bismarck, urge a “yes” vote.

“The opposition (to keeping the nickname) is based on fear,” Soderstrom said. “Don’t vote out of fear. Vote on what’s the right thing to do, and the right thing to do is not always the easiest.

“We all love the name, we all know it’s honorable, and there are just a few who disagree,” he said. “In the long run, (keeping the name) will be the most noble thing we can do for our university.”

The TV campaign

Tim O’Keefe, executive vice president and CEO of the Alumni Association and Foundation, said that 90 percent or more of the $250,000 the groups have budgeted for the campaign will be spent on the TV ads.

The association also printed an extra cover for the Summer 2012 Alumni Review, in the mail last week, urging a “yes” vote and saying, “The future of UND athletics is on the line!” The issue included a three-page story under the headline, “It’s time: The case for retiring the Fighting Sioux nickname.”

O’Keefe and former UND alumni leader Earl Strinden – who was a stalwart in the campaign to keep the nickname – urged a “yes” vote in letters published Friday in the Grand Forks Herald and other newspapers. Strinden, a former Republican majority leader in the North Dakota House of Representatives, had signaled 10 months ago that it was “time to move on” to protect the university.

The TV ads, which warn of dire consequences if UND is not allowed to retire the name, are airing on Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck and Minot TV stations, “which essentially covers the state,” O’Keefe said.

The ads seek both to influence voters and “to emphasize the importance of getting to the polls because primaries don’t normally draw big audiences,” he said, though with some contested office races and high-profile measures, “we would anticipate this one will draw a larger audience than usual.”

O’Keefe said the ads have drawn a variety of reactions.

“We’ve seen positive feedback on a variety of fronts,” he said. “But there also have been those who questioned why the UND foundation, especially given our long history of taking a neutral stance on the nickname, has taken this position.”

His response, he said, is that “given the election laws, the university and its employees cannot advocate a position in a political matter,” so the UND Alumni Association and Foundation has stepped up to take a lead role. “We felt we had to act when you have such significant negative damage as a consequence (of keeping the name) and the university is rendered defenseless.

“We sort of inherited the matter,” he said, after the state Board of Higher Education, the Legislature, the governor and others stepped back.

O’Keefe said he worries about “the degree of divisiveness this has brought on UND, its alumni and friends,” including among faculty, families and former teammates. “Particularly in the past year and a half, the division has gone to nuclear levels.”

UND’s “Spirit Campaign,” its main fundraising drive, “continues to perk along at a very successful rate,” he said, and he’s eager to reach out to nickname supporters “who have a broader base of attachment to the university… and bring them back again.

“But this issue has a long tail, and there’s been a fair degree of emotion. It’s simply going to take time to move beyond it,” he said.

‘Go green!’

Most of the $250,000 to be spent on the “yes” campaign has come from “a small number of donors who have great passion for the future of the university and its students.” O’Keefe said.

“Most of the dollars have come to us,” he said. “We haven’t had to stretch out too far. We’ve not done any broad-based campaign by mail or phone, and we have no intention of doing that.”

Soderstrom conceded that the TV ads are likely to have an effect, and his side can’t match that.

“It’s hard to buy TV on a $20 budget,” he said. “But there are quite a few YouTube videos out there for our cause.”

And he was hoping to score a few moments of free national air time Friday night, as he had tickets to attend a Boston Celtics NBA playoff game. Like most in the Celtics’ home crowd, he planned to wear green.

“And the only green I have is my Fighting Sioux jersey,” he said. “I have good seats beneath one of the baskets. Maybe somebody will see me.”


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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald