North Dakota Senate votes to keep Fighting Sioux nickname

The North Dakota Senate voted Friday to approve legislation ordering UND to retain its controversial Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian-head logo. The vote was 28-15 with four senators absent and not voting, and came after a massive e-mail lobbyi...

The North Dakota Senate voted Friday to approve legislation ordering UND to retain its controversial Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian-head logo.

The vote was 28-15 with four senators absent and not voting, and came after a massive e-mail lobbying campaign that senators said heavily favored approval.

The bill, passed earlier by the House on a 65-28 vote, goes now to Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who said he will sign it.

"The ball is now in the court of the NCAA, and that's what the people want: Take action or not take action," Dalrymple said in a telephone interview following the vote.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson called the bill "a state issue," adding that "the NCAA policy (against use of American Indian names and imagery) remains unchanged."


In addition to writing the Fighting Sioux nickname into state law, the bill directs Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to consider suing the NCAA if the athletics association again threatens sanctions against the university.

Stenehjem sued the NCAA on behalf of the State Board of Higher Education when the association said UND would lose the right to host post-season championships or participate in post-season play wearing Fighting Sioux insignia if it did not comply with an NCAA rule banning Indian-themed nicknames, logos and mascots.

In a 2007 settlement agreement, the NCAA gave UND and the higher education board three years to win authorization from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes to continue using the name. Spirit Lake voters gave their consent, but efforts to arrange a vote at Standing Rock or persuade the tribal council to change its longstanding opposition failed.

The state board directed UND in April 2010 to begin its transition away from the 80-year-old nickname, and UND President Robert Kelley immediately announced formation of transition task groups to effect the change by Aug. 15, 2011.

Stenehjem, traveling to Denmark on state business, released a statement through his office Friday noting that the legislation, if signed, would not take effect until August.

"Over the coming weeks, I will take time to visit with various branches and agencies of government and others involved in the matter before determining the proper legal course to take," he said.

Dalrymple indicated the e-mail campaign that swamped legislators' in-boxes in recent days was a major factor in getting the bill through the Senate.

"It's obvious that a large number of people in North Dakota feel that the question of the logo still needs to be brought to a final conclusion, and they would like it to move forward to some definitive action," he said.


"It's been a very difficult issue. A lot of people do understand both sides of the question very well. What's changed in the last few weeks is people in general in North Dakota have felt strongly enough to contact their legislators and give their opinions. They may be less familiar with the complexities of the issue, but they still have strong opinions."

Among the Grand Forks Senate delegation, Democrats Mac Schneider and Connie Triplett and Republican Ray Holmberg voted no. Republican Lonnie Laffen voted yes.

Immediately after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem offered a "clincher" motion, a parliamentary device that will require a two-thirds majority for the bill to be brought up again.

UND transition put on hold for now

Through a spokesman, Kelley said the university will "continue to follow the bill as it makes its way to the governor, and we'll continue to follow the direction of the state board."

In response to questions about the ongoing transition process, Kelley said the university "doesn't intend to take any further action until the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education clarifies that direction."

UND Athletic Director Brian Faison sounded a similar theme. "The Legislature has spoken, and the governor is the next step and I understand he intends to sign the bill," Faison said. "Whatever his directive to the State Board of Higher Education is, that'll be what we address."

Both Kelley and Faison had spoken against the nickname bill, saying it posed potentially serious problems for the university, its athletic programs and student athletes.


The nickname measure carried a "do not pass" recommendation from the Senate Education Committee, where Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, joined with the majority in a 5-2 vote against the bill.

On the floor Friday, Marcellais -- a member and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the chamber's only Native American member -- urged the full Senate to reject it.

"I don't think we were quite prepared for the emotional journey we were about to undertake," an obviously moved Marcellais said as he opened debate.

He cited "real heartfelt e-mails and passionate testimony ... stirring a pot of heated emotions," and "as a North Dakota senator and an American Indian, I knew I would be under a microscope."

At stake was "a logo with an Indian face, a prized logo designed by one of my tribal members," he said, but the issue was "what is in the best long-term interests" of UND, its students and the state.

Marcellais also raised the question of whether the bill is constitutional and how much its passage could cost the state in additional litigation.

An important identification

But Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, noting that some opponents of the bill had told of witnessing discrimination against American Indians on the UND campus and blamed that on the nickname and logo, suggested such incidents actually reflected the large number of Indian students and programs there.


"Could it be," he asked, that UND attracts so many Indian students and offers so many programs for them "because that university identifies itself with Native Americans?" And defeat of the bill "might have a negative impact on that identification," he said.

Passage of the bill, Dever said, may lead to an extension of the state's contract with the NCAA, allowing more time for nickname supporters to seek a vote at Standing Rock.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, also spoke for the bill.

One advantage of serving in the Senate, he said, "is that every once in a while you get to stand up and stand in the gap" and defend something that's right, he said.

He spoke of the history of "fighting Sioux" in what now is North Dakota and the surrounding region, and of Master Sgt. Woodrow Keeble, the Sioux Indian from North Dakota who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for service in World War II and Korea.

"This is about a heritage," Hogue said.

Schneider, Triplett among 'no' votes

Schneider, whose District 42 includes the university, said that he opposed the bill "with a great deal of sadness," and the former collegiate athlete said that "some of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life came when I was wearing a Fighting Sioux uniform."


But "the narrow question before us," he said, "given the reality we face, is what is in the best interests of the University of North Dakota" and the student athletes who would have to bear the negative consequences of a renewed dispute with the NCAA.

The threatened sanctions "are a big deal," he said. "They are severe."

He said he shares "the widespread frustration" that fans of the nickname and logo feel, but the feelings those symbols inspire would survive their retirement.

"Nobody can retire tradition," Schneider said. "Nobody can retire championships. And nobody will ever retire Sioux pride."

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, also spoke against the bill, saying that it was "beyond insulting" for proponents to argue that they were championing the nickname out of concern for the state's Native American citizens.

"If we cared in this state to preserve the history of the Native Americans who once possessed this land, we would be putting our time and our resources into conversations" about that, she said.

"We would not be talking about logos," but about "fast-declining tribal languages, arts and humanities that relate to tribal cultures, (and) tribal colleges that support the education of actual Native Americans who live among us."

Honks, high-fives at Spirit Lake


Eunice Davidson, who had led efforts on the Spirit Lake reservation to support the nickname, said that she was hearing reports from friends and relatives "of people honking their horns and high-fiving" in celebration.

"I am just so thankful to the senators for listening to the voices of the two tribes who support it and the North Dakota citizens who support it," she said.

John Chaske, a Spirit Lake elder who testified before both the House and Senate committees about how the nickname and logo inspired his grandsons, said he was looking forward to "telling them the good news."

"They're going to be so happy," he said.

"I'm overwhelmed and happy for our Spirit Lake people. They went through a lot. We've been attacked a lot for being proud of our name and doing something we believe in."

Adoption of the bill also drew cheers from people who have lobbied legislators hard ever since it was introduced by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader.

Don Barcome Jr. of Grand Forks, who fanned the e-mail campaign, wrote again to Sen. Stenehjem on Friday to thank him "for the very democratic process that we have all witnessed."

Senators "listened to the majority of the members of North Dakota's Sioux tribes (in my humble opinion) as well as to the majority of their constituents," he wrote. "I think that this vote showed the people of North Dakota that our voices can be heard by our legislators.

"I sincerely hope that this vote will allow the Standing Rock Tribal members' voices to be heard by their council leaders. For it is that vote, up or down, that will bring this issue to closure."

But Erich Longie, a Spirit Lake member who has fought against the nickname and logo, said he was "very disappointed" in the Senate vote.

"I had hoped the Senate would put a stop to this racist practice, but instead they have decided to legalize this racism," he said. "No wonder some of my colleagues elsewhere are calling North Dakota 'the Mississippi of the north.' "

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