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Matt Von Pinnon, Published February 18 2012

Von Pinnon: Fighting Sioux debate is valuable lesson in civics

Whenever local folks gather these days, the Fighting Sioux issue inevitably comes up.

Everybody’s got an opinion about it, but the prevailing response lately seems to be: “I wish it was over.” It’s a noncommittal comment that doesn’t pick sides. It suggests sharing an opinion is likely to guarantee the debate will never end. It recognizes that some debates – like abortion – will never be over.

But attempts to shelve the Fighting Sioux issue – or the soap opera surrounding it – guarantees a missed opportunity, an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.

No matter which side of the issue you’re on, this debate is about values. But, in this particular case, it’s also a great lesson in how government works. Every government and social studies teacher in North Dakota should be using the Sioux ordeal as a real-time lesson in civics.

Consider this abbreviated chain of events: Under threat of athletic sanctions from the NCAA, the state governing body of North Dakota higher education retires UND’s nickname. The state Legislature, representing the people of the state, enacts a law that UND must keep its nickname. The NCAA doesn’t budge on its stance as some state leaders thought it might with the law, prompting the Legislature to repeal the nickname-mandate law. Nickname supporters gather thousands of signatures to force a June vote of the people that could reinstate the original Legislative law mandating UND keep the nickname.

And this is where it gets really interesting:

Members of the Board of Higher Education, none of whom are elected but rather appointed by the governor, vote to urge the state Supreme Court to declare them the final authority on the nickname matter, allowing the board to retire the nickname no matter what the Legislature or public referral says. The state attorney general believes the North Dakota Constitution makes the board the final authority. Legislative leaders say they will fight the matter in the state’s highest court. The Legislature funds higher education with public money and is elected by the people.

It looks like the legislative branch will fight the executive branch (the governor appoints the board of higher ed) for authority on this matter at the Supreme Court, the third branch of government. This is history in the making.

To make matters more intriguing, four of five North Dakota Supreme Court justices got their law degrees from UND. Elected to 10-year terms, could popular politics enter that arena, too?

Meanwhile, nickname supporters are gathering signatures for a separate petition that would ask the state’s residents to enshrine the Fighting Sioux nickname in North Dakota’s Constitution, forcing UND to keep it until the state’s people decide otherwise. They hope to put that question to voters in November. It may prove the final authority, as it should. In the end, the state’s people will likely decide this matter.

Let the values debate rage on. Don’t shy away from it. Embrace it. This is how America is supposed to work.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.