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The nickname, the tribes and the Ralph

GRAND FORKS - TV commercials, newspaper ads, fliers and bumper stickers add up to a pretty hefty bill for a political campaign.

But Spirit Lake supporters of a UND Fighting Sioux nickname referendum say they plan to use all these means to reach voters between now and Election Day on April 21.

Some of them have also been meeting with fellow supporters from the Standing Rock Indian reservation, about 130 miles to the south, and burning up plenty of mileage while they're at it.

The question is where are these supporters getting the money?

Nickname opponents want to know because they think wealthy outsiders are using tribal members as operatives to stir up support for the nickname on the reservations. They point the finger firmly at Ralph Engelstad Arena, well-known for its unabashed support for the nickname and its namesake founder's wealth.

The Ralph is also known for working with -- some would say mobilizing -- nickname supporters on the reservations. Last year, for example, it invited those supporters to conduct a tribal flag ceremony before one of its hockey games.

So far, opponents haven't produced any proof that the Ralph is bankrolling the pro-nickname side. They just can't see how any other entity could.

Supporters and the Ralph are adamant no money has changed hands. In conversations with the Herald, they described a relationship that's more advisory than monetary. The supporters, they say, are grassroots activists whom the Ralph assists with advice and logistical support.

The adviser, though, is Sam Dupris, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe working for the Ralph. Nickname opponents had earlier accused him of pressuring some tribal leaders to support the nickname.

As for funding, nickname supporters in Spirit Lake say they're getting donations from the reservation, not from outsiders.

What's at stake

There's a lot at stake with the referendums because they may be the last best hope for the nickname.

A 2007 settlement between UND and the NCAA requires the university to win the blessings of the state's two Sioux tribes to continue using the Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo.

The NCAA considers the use of Indian nicknames in collegiate sports to be derogatory, but it could make an exception if the tribes' leadership or their enrolled members approve.

Tribal leaders on both reservations have been largely hostile or ambivalent toward the nickname. The Standing Rock Tribal Council, for example, has both opposed the nickname and banned referendums on its use.

Tribal members, though, tend to favor the nickname, and supporters have turned to them. The Spirit Lake nickname supporters, for example, have done an informal survey of tribal members that found an overwhelming majority approve the nickname and logo.

The Spirit Lake survey confirms what Dupris had earlier discovered for the Ralph.

Jody Hodgson, the arena's general manager, said Dupris' most valuable role was helping his organization to understand the attitudes of tribal members and why they support or oppose the nickname.

Spirit Lake nickname opponents are scrambling to turn the tide, sending campaigners out to talk to voters, whom they feel do not fully understand what supporters say is the racially charged atmosphere on campus because of the nickname and logo.

In the meantime, Standing Rock supporters are seeking their own referendum.

The accusations

Erich Longie, a longtime nickname opponent who's now fighting the Spirit Lake referendum, is one of many who think the Ralph's involvement is much deeper than just gathering information.

He theorized that the arena is paying the supporters to talk to their relatives and persuade them to vote for the nickname, using the traditional method of campaigning on the reservation. If that's the case, he said, "that's insidious. A small group gets paid, and the majority group that votes for it gets nothing."

UND's University Senate approved a resolution earlier this month that hinted at "questionable tactics being utilized by pro-logo advocates and supporters" for garnering support from tribal members for the nickname and logo.

Suspicions are only heightened by the continued involvement of Dupris, who's been meeting with nickname supporters on the two reservations and shuttling them back and forth to meet one another.

In fact, he was on hand when the Spirit Lake referendum supporters met Friday to strategize. Earlier in the week, he had driven Tom Iron, a nickname supporter from Standing Rock to meet with John Chaske, the de facto leader of the supporters from Spirit Lake.

Iron, Chaske, Hodgson and Longie are also members of a committee formed by the State Board of Higher Education to objectively study the Fighting Sioux nickname and what level of support it may have.

The explanation

A key figure in all this is Dupris, whose business card calls him an "ambassador to the Sioux" from the Ralph.

He's been on the arena's payroll since summer 2007, working to, as he and his employer described it, open lines of communication between the tribes on the one hand and UND and the arena on the other.

Dupris declined to go on the record with the Herald on Friday, saying that speaking to the press would make his job more difficult. Hodgson, at the arena, though confirmed many key details.

The Ralph does not pay the nickname supporters, nor is it donating campaign funds, Hodgson said. "It doesn't happen. It hasn't been happening. That's the battle cry any time anything happens."

"As a matter of rule, we don't fund political campaigns," he said. "It's not the business we're in."

Nickname supporters didn't bother asking either.

"We weren't going to try that," said Eunice Davidson, a Spirit Lake nickname supporter. "We don't want to be associated with them in that manner."

If anything, Dupris is more of an indirect funding source. He'll drive nickname supporters and feed them on trips, but he's not cutting checks.

"Sam's primary role is there to help those individuals, provide assistance, logistical or administrative support," Hodgson said. "It's about Sam communicating with people and bringing information to us."

In other words, the Ralph doesn't have any direct control over the activities of the nickname supporters, who have said they support the nickname because they value the ties to an institution of higher learning such as UND.

But if the Ralph isn't paying for the TV commercials and newspaper ads, who is? (Full disclosure: Nickname supporters say they plan to buy an ad in the Herald.)

Davidson said neither the Ralph nor nontribal members are donors. Many of the donations are smaller, in the $100 range that she and Chaske have submitted, she said. "It's coming from our own people."