- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fans of the Fighting Sioux have once again rescued the nickname and logo from extinction, at least for another four months.

University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley said Wednesday that the school will resume using the Fighting Sioux after supporters turned in more than 17,000 signatures, well in excess of the 13,500 needed to place the issue on the June 12 ballot.

“I want to reaffirm our respect for the laws of the state and the processes guaranteed under the North Dakota Constitution,” said Mr. Kelley in a statement Wednesday.

The referendum seeks to repeal a law passed in November that erased a previously approved law requiring the university to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname. Once the petitions are filed, they void the law being challenged until either the vote is taken or the number of required signatures falls short, said North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

His office is now counting the signatures, and should be finished by late Thursday or Friday. The office has 35 days to validate the signatures.

The Fighting Sioux battle has raged since the NCAA banned the use of “hostile or abusive” Indian mascots, logos and nicknames in 2005. The only exception is for schools that obtain permission to use the nicknames by the namesake tribes.

Several leaders of the referendum effort are themselves Sioux.

“The honor behind this is being tarnished because of the actions of the NCAA, and we’re here to fight for the honor and use of the name,” said Spirit Lake Sioux member Frank Blackcloud in a video statement. “Because it’s more than a name, more than a logo.”

Despite widespread support for the Fighting Sioux, state lawmakers reluctantly repealed a law requiring use of the Fighting Sioux under threat of NCAA sanctions, which include preventing the school from hosting post-season sports tournaments.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said Wednesday that “the university is subject to the terms of the policy if it uses the logo and nickname.”

“Those terms include not being able to host NCAA championship events and a prohibition against using the nickname and imagery on uniforms for student athletes, along with cheerleaders, mascot or band members, in any NCAA championships,” said Mr. Christianson in an email.

School officials worry that the lingering debate over the nickname could imperil the school’s effort to join the Big Sky Conference. The university is slated to join the conference in July for football, basketball, volleyball and other sports. The school’s vaunted Division I hockey team plays in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

A spokesman for the Big Sky Conference said the organization is monitoring the nickname situation. A university may be voted out of the conference by a unanimous vote of the participating school presidents.

“Our concern, as before, is not that they are the Fighting Sioux, but rather whether they can be an effective Division I program and a benefit to our conference,” said Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton.

Meanwhile, members of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education said they will meet early next week to discuss whether to file a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Fighting Sioux law.

“I think the board is going to want to take some action,” board President Gene Shaft told the Grand Forks [N.D.] Herald. “We havent discussed it, but my sense is the board would like to see some definitive statement as to who has the constitutional authority for the nickname and logo.”

The university has received the permission of one namesake tribe, the Spirit Lake Sioux, after members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Fighting Sioux nickname. The tribal council of the other tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux, has opposed the nickname and refused to hold a vote.

Members of both the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes are involved in the petition drive. The committee sponsoring the referendum is the Committee for Understanding and Respect, a panel of the Spirit Lake tribe that sued unsuccessfully to keep the Fighting Sioux.

“Members of our reservation, they’re going to have a chance to vote on this,” said Standing Rock Sioux member Archie Fool Bear as he turned in petitions Tuesday in video footage posted on the Herald’s webpage.

A Facebook page tracking the referendum effort, called “No More Fighting Sioux = No More Alumni Donations to UND,” announced that the petition drive had produced 17,213 signatures and urged supporters to participate in an online poll.

The June 12 ballot already contains Measure 2, a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate property taxes statewide.

“If I certify this [the Fighting Sioux referendum] on the ballot, we’re going to have two measures that will generate an intense amount of discussion,” said Mr. Jaeger.