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Unknowns remain after UND nickname vote in Spirit Lake

GRAND FORKS - Many issues are still up in the air despite a decisive vote of 774-378, according to official results, in support of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname on the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation.

A State Board of Higher Education committee researching how the state's two namesake tribes feel about the nickname will still meet with Spirit Lake tribal members in the next few months.

There are unanswered questions, such as where the tribe wants to go from here, committee Chairman Grant Shaft said.

Spirit Lake nickname opponents say they hope to undo the referendum and turn the tribe against the nickname.

Anti-nickname organizer Erich Longie said he hopes Tribal Council members who win after next month's election will vote to oppose the nickname in spite of the referendum. Failing that, he'd like to put together another referendum.

In the meantime, the biggest wildcard is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose Tribal Council is still officially opposed to the nickname. Nickname supporters are gathering a petition to force the Tribal Council's hands.

That council will be facing a primary election in July just as the Spirit Lake council faced a primary election Tuesday.

Nickname committee

For the State Board of Higher Education nickname committee, Shaft said, "There are a couple of different levels of information we would like from the tribe. It's beyond just the basic should we retain the name or retire the name?"

If the Standing Rock tribe does support the nickname, the question would then be what kind of long-standing agreement could the state reach with tribes? What kind of input would the tribes want into how the nickname is used? Should there be, as some tribal members suggest, a tribal liaison on campus to monitor the nickname's usage? Are there scholarship programs aimed at tribal members and should they change?

If Standing Rock doesn't support the nickname or Spirit Lake reverses itself, what role would the tribes want to play in the transition?

"I think the committee still has a purpose in that sense," Shaft said, "just to get that type of information."

He said he will not seek a meeting on the Spirit Lake reservation until after the May election to avoid disrupting the election, as requested by tribal Vice Chairwoman Shelly Luger.

Of the massive support for the nickname, he said, it helps state board members better understand why it is that they hear so much opposition to the nickname from activists and so little from "day-to-day tribal members" who might feel the same way.

The vote explains the reason for that: There's a strong majority that favors the nickname, he said.


Longie, a longtime nickname opponent, sees it differently. From his point of view, the reason the majority favor the nickname is because they've been misled by well-funded nickname supporters.

"We don't have a benefactor that pays for TV ads and donates T-shirts and caps," he said, referencing the opposition's belief that Ralph Engelstad Arena has been funding the pro-nickname campaign.

The arena and Spirit Lake nickname supporters say that's not true. Supporters say they're getting donations from tribal members, even large ones that paid for the TV ads.

If the playing field were level and nickname opponents had had more time to get its message out, Longie said, the vote would've been different. That's why opponents want another referendum, he said. "This is not over. Not by a long shot."

Opponents are hoping not to have to go that far, though. The referendum is not binding on the Tribal Council, which has the final say.

"If the council really looked at it and interprets it legally, not politically, they will see that it's an advisory vote only," Longie said. "I hope the new council will look at it from a legal standpoint."

He recognized that Tuesday's referendum was overwhelming, but, he said, things change with time and in six months that nickname might look a lot different.


Nickname supporters do not sound particularly threatened by Longie's plans.

Eunice Davidson, a pro-nickname organizer, said she doesn't think the Tribal Council would go against the referendum, especially when it was the council that signed the resolution supporting the referendum. It did so after her group submitted a petition with 301 signatures.

She doesn't think the group needs to campaign the way nickname opponents have been, either. All nickname supporters wanted was to let tribal members have a voice, she said.

As the group's surveys had shown and the election proved, tribal members are proud of the Fighting Sioux nickname, she said.

"We really feel people voiced their opinion; that was kind of overwhelming. If they had more time," she said of nickname opponents, "I don't know if they'd be able to get people to vote against it."

Standing Rock

In the Standing Rock tribe, nickname supporters have been watching what's happening at Spirit Lake and are preparing their own petition, said Tom Iron, who's a member of the state board's nickname committee and a proponent of a nickname referendum in the tribe.

The goal, he said, is to have a referendum during the July 15 primary election. He predicted an overwhelming "yes" vote similar to that at Spirit Lake, if the nickname were to get on the ballot.

That Spirit Lake tribal members got a chance to vote, Iron said, should help Standing Rock nickname supporters.

"It's gonna make it stronger because people want to come up with an answer to what's going on here," he said. "It's only the politicians that are fighting UND. It's pretty dang close to the election and they cannot be putting negative issues in front of the people because nobody will vote for them."

The negative issues include an allegation that Ralph Engelstad had used a hateful racial slur against Indians. Engelstad was a staunch supporter of the nickname before his death almost seven years ago, and nickname opponents have tried to tie him to the nickname referendum at Spirit Lake. The Engelstad family has decried opponents' tactic and said Engelstad never used such a slur.

Iron said he thinks there will be a different council after the main tribal election in September.