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UND nickname committee wades into debate

GRAND FORKS - In their first meeting as a group Thursday, there already were strong divisions among some members of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname committee.

At stake was whether the committee ought to meet with members of the namesake tribes, even if tribal leaders refuse to be present.

Erich Longie, a Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation member and longtime nickname opponent, asked why the committee would meet without the leaders. "Doesn't the decision fall on the tribal leadership?" he said, noting that the leaders of both tribes have consistently refused to meet about the nickname.

"The tribal membership does not make the decision," he said.

Under a legal settlement with the NCAA, UND will need the support of these leaders if it is to keep the nickname that the NCAA has called "hostile and abusive."

But Celeste Melander, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member and UND student, said it's still important to hear what tribal members think.

"We have to remember that we vote for our leadership," she said. "My opinion is highly important. I would not want my tribal leadership to not take into consideration my opinion on anything that goes on within the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe."

Melander wore her belief on her sleeve Thursday. She attended the conference call at UND wearing a Fighting Sioux logo sweatshirt.

Committee Chairman Grant Shaft said the mission of the committee, as established by the State Board of Higher Education, is to gather data on all sides of the issue. So, the meetings with the two tribes should be considered part of a "fact finding mission," he said, not negotiations for keeping the nickname.

Within the next 60 to 90 days, he said, he'd like to hold the tribal meetings, plus one at UND with students, faculty and the rest of the community. Supporters and opponents of the nickname would be asked to make presentations, he said.

Spirit Lake leaders have refused to take a position on the nickname, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leaders have condemned it. But the tribes are not monolithic in their opinion about the nickname. Some tribal members in Spirit Lake that do support the nickname are urging their leaders to allow a referendum on the nickname. They claim that their surveys show a majority of the tribe feel as they do.

If there are a significant number of nickname supporters, any public meeting with tribal members could prove divisive, a fear Longie expressed.

"I'm looking out for peace and harmony," Longie said. "If you don't get a meeting with the tribal leadership and start a meeting with the tribal membership... I already have relatives who are mad at me, and I think a meeting would inflame those passions."

As if offering a preview of that potential divisiveness, Melander rebutted Longie. "The peace and harmony won't be there unless you allow your people to voice their opinion," she said. "If you don't give them an opportunity to speak about what they want, of course you will have no peace and harmony."

Another preview of future divisions came when Tom Iron, a former Standing Rock vice-chairman, suggested the committee arrange for attorneys to explain to tribal leaders their constitutional powers and the source of those powers, Longie suggested that Iron speak only for Standing Rock and not Spirit Lake.

Shaft asked committee members to limit "substantive" discussions for another meeting because he wanted to get through some organizational matters during the first meeting, including an explanation of open meeting laws by the board of higher education's attorney.