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Sioux nickname group says it has enough signatures for public vote

Spirit Lake supporters of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname say they have gathered enough signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot during the tribe's general election in May.

Eunice Davidson, one of the supporters, said Thursday she alone has gathered 226 signatures and there are 11 other volunteers who have also gathered signatures.

The number needed, she said, is 160, which is 20 percent of the 799 votes cast in the last general election in 2007.

The conversations she's had with those who signed the petition appear to reflect a survey her group conducted two years ago, which indicated massive support for the nickname, Davidson said.

Erich Longie, a prominent nickname opponent at Spirit Lake, said Thursday that if he and his volunteers could talk to voters who want to keep the nickname and present the facts to them, they would change their minds.

If Spirit Lake voters offered their support for the nickname, it would bolster the effort for UND to keep the nickname.

A legal settlement with the NCAA says the university must win support from both of the Sioux tribes in the state, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, for the nickname. If not, UND would have to change the nickname by Aug. 15, 2011.

There has been no public discussion of a nickname referendum at Standing Rock, but nickname supporters are at work. Tribal leaders there have been adamant in their opposition.

The other petition

It's not clear how many signatures Davidson's group has gathered.

Some members couldn't make it when the group met Thursday, she said, so they will all submit signatures to the Tribal Council today, the last day to get on the May ballot.

The election board would have five days to verify that those signatures are legitimate, she said.

Longie has his own petition out but he said he

doesn't have a deadline because he's appealing directly to the Tribal Council.

He's asking the council to rescind a 2000 resolution that says the council supports the nickname only if something positive comes out of it.

He feels nothing has, he said.

Public opinion

Longie appears to be fighting an uphill battle.

Davidson said only one person she asked to sign the petition refused, where most asked if she was trying to get rid of the nickname before signing it; they wouldn't sign if she was a nickname opponent.

In fact, she said, some said they normally do not vote in tribal elections but would do so to support the nickname.

"I don't think we should vote for something racist," Longie said. He acknowledged his view is not necessarily shared by a majority of voters, he said, but that's a matter of education.

He's heard of supporters who have changed their minds, he said, but no nickname opponent who has. "I'm confident people, if they understand the issue, they'll change their mind," he said. "If they know what the issue is and they don't change their mind, I guess I can't understand it."

But he fears he wouldn't have the resources to go door-to-door, Longie said. He suggested the Tribal Council host a forum to help educate voters.

State committee

All of this is taking place as a committee assembled by the State Board of Higher Education prepares to meet with the two tribes to gauge tribal members' opinions about the nickname.

Grant Shaft, the committee chairman, said he doesn't see the referendum changing the committee's plans. The committee would still want to gather information from both sides of the nickname controversy and bring it back to the state board, he said.

In all likelihood, the meeting would take place before the May election, he said.