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Chuck Haga, Published June 07 2012

Nickname supporters travel across state

FARGO — Traffic was slow in the Buffalo Wild Wings parking lot Thursday morning, slow to nothing, actually, in terms of people stopping by to visit or sign a petition. But that didn’t mean Eunice Davidson wasn’t busy.

The vote is just days away.

She sat inside the big “Truth Tour” RV, emblazoned front, back and sides with Fighting Sioux logos and big-letter appeals —“Save the Name!” and “Vote No on Measure 4” — and answered her cellphone.

People called who support her efforts, as leader of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe’s Committee for Understanding and Respect, to champion retention of UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname.

People who oppose the effort sent texts. “I guess my number got out there somehow,” she said quietly after reading one terse comment. “Well, that’s OK.”

In between supporters and opponents, people from TV and radio stations called.

“Do you have a minute, Eunice?”

“Of course.”

And the kindly, soft-spoken, 60-year-old woman, who has been on the road for much of the past several weeks campaigning for a “No” vote on Measure 4 in Tuesday’s primary election, runs again through her talking points.

This is about upholding tradition, honor and respect, she says. It’s about standing up to bullies and “fear tactics.” It’s about listening to the Sioux people.

People, Sioux and others, sometimes tell her they just want the drawn-out nickname fight to be over.

“I tell them, ‘You don’t think I want it to be over?’ I want my life back. Oh, I wish I could be back in my cool house right now.”

She giggled and added, “Sleeping.”

Instead, she sat in a folding camp chair outside the campaign RV, nestling into the meager shade offered on a hot, windy day by a small tree at the edge of the parking lot, remembering the cold, windy nights she stood outside near Ralph Engelstad Arena, soliciting the signatures that helped bring about Tuesday’s vote.

Here, she had the company of Bella Gabriella, a campaign supporter’s 140-pound Italian mastiff. Bella seemed bored but didn’t object to the pink Fighting Sioux sweatshirt she wore.

Davidson spent all day Thursday campaigning to save the nickname, and she promised to be back again today, when she expects to be joined by others — including Ben Brien, the noted artist from the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe Indians, who designed the popular Fighting Sioux logo.

“Only he calls it a symbol, not a logo,” Davidson said.

A “Yes” vote on Measure 4 Tuesday will have the effect of allowing UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname. A “No” vote will reaffirm the state law adopted last spring directing UND to keep it.

Davidson’s committee led the petition drive to put the matter on Tuesday’s ballot, and the committee also is circulating petitions for an initiated measure that could go on the November general election ballot. That proposition would ask voters to secure the nickname in the state Constitution.

They need to collect about 27,000 signatures by early August. Davidson said on Thursday that they expect to have well more than that number.

“We’ve had such a good response in Belcourt, in Mohall, in Bowbells — I never knew where many of these towns were until we went there,” she said. “And on the highway, people honk and wave and show their support.”

She smiled. “One lady passed us and gave us a thumbs down,” she said. “But that’s rare.”

The campaign struggled with a big disadvantage in financing, as the UND Alumni Association expects to spend $250,000 to promote a “Yes” vote and the “No” campaign has been unable to match the association’s TV and radio advertising.

But Davidson said she is cautiously optimistic about the vote Tuesday. And win or lose in the primary, the petition effort for the initiated measure will continue.

“It would make it a little harder,” she said. “But we won’t give up. Have you seen me give up yet?”

Davidson picked up a few signatures Thursday afternoon, including from Fargo construction workers Dana Johnson, 34, and Casey Otto, 32, who spotted the Sioux-heavy RV and pulled off the road.

“It’s absolutely stupid to take away a name they’ve had for so long,” Johnson said as he signed the initiated measure petition.

How does he think the campaign is shaping up in the Fargo area?

“It’s probably going to lose” on Tuesday, he said. “But I’m going to help these people try, anyway.”

Another man walked up and contemplated the petition clipboard.

“I suppose you have to be a North Dakota resident?”

“Yes, you do,” Davidson said.

The young man walked away, looking back at the RV as if it was an ice cream truck and he’d been told he couldn’t buy anything.

But Bill Tubbs, 73, of Fargo, was able to sign Davidson’s petition. “I think the name should go on,” he said.

And Doug Benson, 61, of Harwood, drove up in a pickup with Fighting Sioux pennants flapping from both sides of the cab and a sign hanging on the back: “No on 4.”

“I’ve been driving it around town for a couple hours each of the past three, four days,” he said.

How does he see the vote going?

“It’s going to be a close call,” he said. “If not for the opposition of UND and the Alumni Association, I think it would be a slam dunk. But UND fighting it gives people pause.”

UND administrators, faculty and student groups, the Alumni Association and all the coaches have warned that retention of the nickname could mean serious damage to UND athletics in scheduling, recruiting, conference affiliation and overall status.

Davidson and others have dismissed those claims as fear tactics. The consequences of NCAA sanctions, they say, have been much exaggerated.

Benson, a UND graduate, said he’s heard the warnings about sanctions and the future of UND athletics.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “But the dignity of the Sioux people is paramount.”