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Tribal members urge governor to intervene in nickname issue

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Members of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe unhappy with the State Board of Higher Education's planned retirement of UND's Fighting Sioux logo and nickname have sent a letter to Gov. John Hoeven, urging him to "correct this wrong."

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Eunice Davidson, a leader of the Spirit Lake Committee for Understanding and Respect, said the appeal was made to the governor because the board acted in a way that ignored the wishes of a majority of the Sioux people and left them feeling deceived.

"I would have more respect if they (state board members) came right out and said they don't want the name," she said Thursday.

The letter - bearing a Fighting Sioux logo - was signed by Davidson and four other enrolled members of the Spirit Lake tribe and mailed on Wednesday. In it, the group asks Hoeven "to use the influence of your office to correct an unfortunate disregard for the wishes of the majority of the members of Spirit Lake and Standing Rock who are North Dakota citizens."

Don Canton, Hoeven's press aide, said the governor was away from the office and had not yet seen the letter, which arrived in his office Thursday.

"The governor has consistently supported the use of the nickname as long as it's used with respect and dignity," Canton said.

Last week's Supreme Court ruling left authority in the nickname issue with the state board, so it's unclear whether or how Hoeven could intervene.

Original deadline wanted

In an interview Thursday, Davidson said the group wants the governor to reinstate the original deadline for the higher education board to hear from Standing Rock.

"Why were they so rushed?" she asked. "Push it back to Nov. 30."

She said the state board and UND administrators "had much contact with the opposition and avoided supporters" as they worked toward last week's action.

The Spirit Lake letter notes that two-thirds of voters in a tribal referendum last year "favor(ed) UND athletics teams being identified as the Sioux or Fighting Sioux" and a petition at Standing Rock calling for a referendum was signed by more than 1,000 people, or more than 50 percent of the number who voted in the last tribal election there.

In 2005, the NCAA sought to ban the use of American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots at member schools, alleging they were "hostile" or "abusive," and threatened UND with sanctions if it did not drop the Fighting Sioux name.

The following year, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, acting on behalf of the State Board of Higher Education, sued the NCAA, alleging breach of contract and illegal restraint of trade. In 2007, Stenehjem negotiated a settlement with the athletic association, which gave UND three years - until Nov. 30, 2010 - to win the support of the namesake tribes' governments or begin the transition.

Ignored votes

Faced with what board members saw as unwavering opposition from Standing Rock tribal leaders - and UND's desire to enter the Summit League, which wants an end to the fight over the nickname - the board voted in May 2009 to drop the nickname.

Spirit Lake logo supporters tried to intervene but lost in the courts, and last week the board directed UND President Robert Kelley to begin the transition away from the 80-year-old nickname.

"The Board of Higher Education unilaterally changed the agreement (the NCAA lawsuit settlement) and ignored the action at Spirit Lake and the petitions submitted at Standing Rock," the letter to Hoeven states.

"We want to believe the sad history of broken promises to the American Indians had ended, but obviously the calloused and disrespectful actions by the Board of Higher Education prove otherwise."

A large majority of people at Spirit Lake "believe this identification with the University of North Dakota is very important," the letter states. "To lose this will only mean further isolation which will be harmful to the Sioux citizens.

"We are respectfully asking you to use your leadership so we can fulfill the role given to us in the court-approved agreement."

The letter was signed by Davidson, John Chaske, Renita DeLorme, Lavonne Alberts and Alex Yankton. Committee member Frank Black Cloud signed a second copy of the letter, which was mailed later.

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