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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 07 2012

Fighting Sioux Nickname supporters: Initiated measure still on, but vote won’t be until 2014

GRAND FORKS – Diehard supporters of the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname say they continue collecting signatures to force another statewide vote on the issue, but they won’t file the signatures until December – meaning the initiated measure would appear on the ballot in June 2014.

Sean M. Johnson, Bismarck, spokesman for the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe’s Committee for Understanding and Respect, said the committee has until Dec. 12 to turn in the required 27,000 signatures.

The committee initially had aimed at filing its petition with Secretary of State Al Jaeger this week to get the initiated measure – which would secure the nickname in the state Constitution – on the November general election ballot.

“Fighting Sioux supporters chose to wait in light of several other initiated measures being submitted for voter consideration on the November 2012 ballot,” Johnson said in a statement released Tuesday.

“Quite simply, we did not want our issue grouped in with several of the others which will be up in November,” he stated, “issues that were not apparent when we first started our efforts.”

Johnson stated that supporters “are also pursuing other supporting efforts” to ensure that UND “does not exterminate the traditions and heritage that accompanied the positive use of the Fighting Sioux name and symbol for over 80 years.”

Petition drive

In an interview Tuesday, Johnson said the delay in filing “is not a question of having the necessary signatures” by Wednesday’s filing deadline for getting on the November general election ballot.

“The petition drive is going very well,” he said. “I don’t have the exact count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re close – or even over.”

But he said the committee members were concerned about dropping the nickname fight into a mix of other “very contentious issues” on the November ballot, including tobacco, medical marijuana and animal protection.

“And the other things we want to do, we need time to focus on those, too,” he said. “We’re all volunteers here. We don’t have a quarter-million dollars to hire agencies to do our work for us.”

The financial reference was to the $250,000 raised through donations by the UND Alumni Association and Foundation to fight the June primary battle over the nickname. State voters overwhelmingly sided with the association and voted to allow UND to retire the name and logo.

Tim O’Keefe, executive vice president of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, said the association would strongly resist any new effort to put the nickname issue to a vote, and he predicted state voters would “resent and reject” it.

“In the past, I respected the core intentions of the Committee for Respect and Understanding, given our common affection for the Fighting Sioux name and traditions of the past,” O’Keefe said.

But “the people of North Dakota rightfully recognized the damage UND would incur by keeping the name, and on June 12 spoke in huge volume in support of UND,” he said. “Thus, any efforts … to create another referendum are not only ill-advised, they become malicious attempts to damage UND, its students, student-athletes and reputation.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a key player in the nickname controversy since he sued the NCAA on UND’s behalf and negotiated the 2007 settlement agreement, also said he doubts another statewide vote would end in a different result.

“The issue is receding into the distance,” Stenehjem said Tuesday. “When the voters by a 2-to-1 margin decided they didn’t think this matter belonged in a statute, they surely are not going to enshrine this in the fundamental document of our democracy.”

‘Not same issue’

Asked why the committee believes, in light of the lopsided vote in June, another vote would give a different result, Johnson said “it’s not the same issue.”

“This is about trying to preserve the tradition, the honor that UND has benefitted from by using the name,” he said. “The path they (UND and the State Board of Higher Education) are on right now is to exterminate it.”

He said the initiated measure would declare that UND athletics teams are to be known as the Fighting Sioux, but “would not require them to actually use the name and logo,” which Johnson said would remove the cloud of potential NCAA sanctions.

“UND’s football team has not used the name and logo (on uniforms) in ages,” he said, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

He also said the committee believes that “people will better understand” the issue in June 2014.

“We feel that once people get more information and they see there is no harm that could come from this measure, they would feel differently,” he said.

“When we did a post mortem on the referendum, we saw that people were confused despite our best efforts,” he said. “We can’t take that back, and we’re not saying we should vote over. But you can assume the language will be clearer this (next) time.”

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald