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Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald, Published June 12 2012

ND voters favor retiring Fighting Sioux nickname

GRAND FORKS – North Dakotans signaled Tuesday they’re ready to say goodbye to UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname, overwhelmingly favoring a ballot measure that would allow the university to drop the name.

In complete but unofficial results, the “yes” vote on Measure 4 was leading the “no” vote 67 percent to 33 percent. The “yes” votes totaled 113,165, the “no” votes 54,788.

With all 27 precincts reporting in Grand Forks County, “yes” had 5,426 votes to 2,276 for “no,” or 70.45 percent to 29.55 percent. The “Yes” vote carried by decisive margins in the state’s major counties – and carried Sioux County, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, by 184 votes to 159.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Sean Johnson, Bismarck, spokesman for the group that sought the referendum on the nickname.

He blamed “a lot of false fears generated by the foundation,” a reference to the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, which took the lead in encouraging a vote to allow UND to retire the nickname. Keeping it, the alumni groups and others said, could severely damage UND because of NCAA sanctions.

The alumni groups spent about $250,000 on the campaign, mostly on TV advertising. “When your opposition outspends you 25-1, they’d better fire their ad company if they don’t win,” Johnson said.

He said nickname supporters will continue to circulate petitions for another vote, an initiated measure that would secure the nickname in the state constitution. If enough signatures are filed by August, that vote could occur in November, but Johnson said the group may wait to file until December for a vote on the constitutional amendment in 2014.

“We probably need more time to get the argument out there,” he said.

Frank Burggraf, Fargo, a former Fighting Sioux hockey player who joined in the campaign to save the name, also faulted spending by the Alumni Association.

“It’s a sad day,” he said. “Is it over? I don’t know. Do we have time to re-educate people?”

Tim O’Keefe, CEO of the Alumni Association, welcomed the vote result but was careful not to declare it a victory.

“Clearly this is an issue without celebration,” he said. “We made it clear at the outset that this was not an issue about preference. If that were the case, for many of us, it would be for the nickname staying.”

But the nickname must go, O’Keefe said, for the sake of UND athletics, the student athletes and the university as a whole.

“We had great faith that if we could inform the people of North Dakota, they would react responsibly,” he said. “They’ve done so, and by a large margin.”

He said he hopes the plans to seek a constitutional amendment are dropped.

“This primary vote was supposed to be about letting the people of North Dakota have a say,” O’Keefe said. “They’ve had their say, and clearly the people of North Dakota are ready to retire the name. Why would someone think the results of another vote would be any different?

“If they do press forward, we will be there to protect the university.”

UND President Robert Kelley said he appreciated voters “took the time to listen and to understand the issues and the importance of allowing the university to move forward. We also understand how deeply this has affected all of us.”

In addition to uncertainty over whether nickname supporters will push for another vote, two federal lawsuits involve the Fighting Sioux nickname, one by Indian students at UND who oppose its use, the other by the Spirit Lake Nation against the NCAA on behalf of the name. Spirit Lake’s suit was dismissed in U.S. District Court last month, but the tribe has appealed.

In 2005, the NCAA adopted a policy discouraging the use of American Indian names and imagery by member schools. UND sued the NCAA, and a 2007 settlement gave the school three years to win namesake approval from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes.

Spirit Lake gave its OK. Standing Rock did not. UND began to retire the nickname, but the 2011 Legislature passed a law requiring the university to keep it. The law was repealed in November after lawmakers were persuaded the NCAA would not relent on sanctions, but the referral stayed the repeal.