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Supporter of UND nickname says Spirit Lake Tribal Council will consider holding tribal vote

GRAND FORKS - A decision whether to hold a referendum on the University North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname will be before the Spirit Lake Tribal Council on Saturday, according to a supporter of the referendum.

John Chaske said his group met with the tribal council Wednesday, and it appeared three council members are willing to put the issue on the ballot in April. Another council member was absent, he said, and a decision on the referendum requires all to be present.

Chairwoman Myra Pearson has expressed her opposition to the nickname in the past, but she would vote only in the event of a tie.

Ninety percent of the tribal members he talks to support the nickname, Chaske said.

"There are some that are dead set against it," he said, "but it looks good."

Chaske's group of about 20 or so nickname supporters from the tribe has submitted a resolution to the council, which he said might be modified on Saturday.

The resolution lays out what tribal members would vote on: "approval or disapproval of UND's athletic teams to be known as the 'Fighting Sioux' with the respectful logo" -- and when -- "the primary election to be held in April 2009."

It also justifies the referendum: "The Tribal Council highly respects the voice of the tribal membership who maintain the ultimate authority on important matters that reflect on the welfare of the entire tribe. Therefore, it is the tribal citizens who should decide on this issue, which will be endorsed by the Tribal Council."

If a referendum did result in support for the nickname, it could give the North Dakota Board of Higher Education a basis for retaining the nickname, which the NCAA considers "hostile and abusive."

Even before the NCAA decision, many American Indians on campus have decried the nickname as racist and protested its use vigorously.

Under a 2007 legal settlement between the NCAA and UND, the university must win support from both namesake tribes or begin phasing out the nickname by Nov. 30, 2010.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, however, has made clear its opposition to the nickname and even a referendum. It voted 7-5 in May 2008 to not hold a public vote.

Chaske said he understands there are Standing Rock members pushing the council for a vote. "I hope what we do here will give them a spark over there."

A "yes" vote on the nickname would be the first step in building a new relationship between the tribe and UND, Chaske said.

Ideally, he said, an agreement with the university might involve more scholarships for tribal members and classes teaching other students the reality of American Indian culture. "We don't all get a check every month (from the federal government)."

While he acknowledged that there is prejudice against native people, he said that goes on regardless of the nickname.

"Prejudice is always going to be there. It's here in Devils Lake," he said. "We can't let ourselves be stuck in that mode, you know? Here's an opportunity for us to make things better, to bridge the gap between the non-Indian and the Indian people."