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Tribal council bans vote on nickname

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council placed a moratorium early in May on any reservation-wide referendum to gauge tribal support for UND's Fighting Sioux nickname.

In a resolution, the council voted 7-5 to preclude any possibility of the school retaining its long controversial sports nickname, which some consider a symbol of pride and excellence on the athletic field and others call a simplistic stereotype that breeds racism and even violence.

A legal settlement the NCAA reached with UND in October requires the university to retire its nickname and the school's Indian head logo within three years unless it can win support from the tribal councils at both Standing Rock and Spirit Lake, North Dakota's other major Sioux reservation.

The Standing Rock council voted on a previous resolution a few weeks after the settlement was signed to reaffirm its longstanding opposition to the nickname. The council has held firm to that position since, including during a meeting between Tribal Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder and North Dakota University System Chancellor William Goetz.

According to the May resolution, however, several tribe members have been pushing for a referendum vote that could overturn the council's decision, either by legal means or through political pressure.

The resolution seemingly would erase that possibility by denying funding to hold a referendum. According to language in the resolution, the tribe's constitution would not allow a referendum to be funded by outside groups.

The resolution recites a familiar laundry list of reasons for tribal disapproval of the nickname, including the perpetuation of Indian stereotypes and the disrespectful actions of some fans at UND sporting events.

The resolution spends by far the most ink, however, on a November party by UND's Gamma Phi Beta sorority during which female students wore Indian maiden dresses and feather headdresses and some male students dressed only in makeshift loincloths with red paint slathered across their faces and bodies.

"The actions of those at (the) Gamma Phi Beta Sorority part(y) last November appear to be based on fundamental ignorance at best and out-and-out racism at worst," the resolution states.

His Horse Is Thunder and tribal council member Jesse Taken Alive, who has been a leader on the nickname issue and who signed the May 8 resolution, did not return repeated Herald phone calls during the past week. A spokeswoman for Chancellor Goetz said he's aware of discussion about such a resolution but said he would not comment because he hasn't seen it in writing yet.

Several members of Spirit Lake's Tribal Council spoke in support of a reservation-wide nickname referendum several months ago. But the council has not taken any action to organize a referendum so far and discussions about one have generally died down, according to a council member who asked not to be named because the member did not want to draw negative attention to the tribe.

Why a referendum?

The defining characteristic of the nickname debate now is a kind of amorphous uncertainty about the nickname's future that's persisted despite a series of seemingly final acts: the NCAA settlement in October that required tribal council approval despite the Standing Rock's strong and stated opposition; the reaffirmation of that opposition in November; and a statement by Goetz in February that a referendum vote would be "of little or no value" because it would not bring a final resolution to the nickname issue.

Yet the likelihood that a referendum vote supporting the nickname would not halt its retirement has evidently not dissuaded some tribe members from pushing for a referendum nor halted the council from taking action to block them.

Sam Dupris, a member of South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has spent roughly the past year advocating for the nickname at Standing Rock as a paid envoy of the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Dupris said Tuesday he believes a referendum will take place despite the council resolution. New council members or the four members absent during the May vote could overturn the resolution, he said. Also, council members could simply bow to popular will, he said.

"I don't know all the technicalities of it really, but anytime someone comes up with a solution or an approach, (the council) comes up with another trick up their sleeve," he said. "But this too will come to pass and the reason I say that is the fact that people here have had just about enough of all those shenanigans. And they're only being generated by a very small but very vocal minority out here."

Dupris said he wasn't at liberty to disclose the details of his contract with the REA, but said no one has asked him to stand down and there's been no indication that his bosses consider retaining the nickname a lost cause. The REA is a run by a private board established by UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad, which is largely independent from UND.

Chancellor Goetz has said he plans to name a committee to examine the nickname's future at the next State Board of Higher Education meeting June 19.