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UND president says it's time for school to move on after nickname decison

University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley. (John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS - Thursday's action by the State Board of Higher Education concerning the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo probably seals their fate, UND President Robert Kelley said.

"I think it does," he said shortly after board members voted 8-0 to set a new deadline of Oct. 1 for the university to gain tribal approval for use of the name and requiring that such approval be encased in a 30-year binding agreement.

"I'm very doubtful that can be achieved," Kelley said.

"In many ways, I'm looking forward to the planning that's to come with the transition," he said. "We need, for example, to find a way to acknowledge a deep tradition" with the nickname and logo. "And we need to acknowledge a lot of people, including Ralph and Betty Engelstad, who made such a great investment in our university.

"But time changes," Kelley said. "And it's time for the university to move on."

Because the nickname and logo issue has become so contentious, UND Police took the precaution of stationing an officer near the entrance to Twamley Hall, the administration building, for most of the day Thursday, Chief Duane Czapiewski said.

"I don't believe there are going to be any issues," he said.

Eunice Davidson, a Spirit Lake nickname supporter from Devils Lake, said she is "not going to rule anything out" after Thursday's decision.

"We had an overwhelming vote (on the reservation) in favor of keeping" the nickname and logo, she said. "I don't know if we'd be able to get that or not" if a referendum were held on the new conditions. "We'd just have to try. Nothing is impossible if you really go after it."

She said she "can't speak for Standing Rock," but "people we've talked with at Standing Rock say that if they can get a vote, they're pretty sure it would pass."

Davidson said Standing Rock Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, who has opposed holding a referendum on the nickname issue, is "irresponsible ... for not letting the people have democracy on their reservation."

She can "certainly understand people who want this to be over," she said. "But this is the first time the tribes have ever gone so far with this, and I think they should let that whole process play out -- the original timeline."

'Human dignity'

His Horse Is Thunder did not respond to requests for comment after the board meeting.

But David Gipp, a UND graduate, member of the Standing Rock tribe and president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, applauded the board's action and said he expects it to "ultimately result in discontinuing use of American Indian imagery in the nickname and logo at UND, my alma mater."

But Gipp he wasn't clear on the board's motivation.

"On the surface, it appears the main concern is about membership status for UND teams in an athletic conference," he said, referring to UND's hopes of joining the Summit League. He would prefer to think the board acted "out of concern for human dignity and the ... values associated with higher learning," he said, and he would applaud board members if they "have found the courage to break free of the influence exerted by the nickname money interests. It is unethical and immoral that tribal people have been manipulated, divided and turned against each other in this process."

Emotional debate

Nickname supporters and opponents and people weary of the long debate rushed to comment on Herald and other Web sites and on local radio talk shows.

"Remember when Grand Forks Central High School was named the 'Redskins' and the name was changed?" one person asked as he joined the Herald's online discussion. "There were shirts printed that stated 'Redskins Forever!!!' Now, that passed with time, and Central thrives. This too will pass, and UND will thrive, with whatever nickname is chosen.

"Let's not be vindictive and make retribution toward Native people and programs, as that would give credence to 'racist' claims."

Another commenter, a UND alumnus, agreed it's time to move on.

"Congratulations to the state board for (making) a decision," he wrote. "It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. Let's spend energy and money on a successful D-I program that makes everyone forget about a mascot that has been the subject of too much controversy."

Others still seemed reluctant to let it go:

"It seems a shame that a Native American tribe such as the Sioux, who have a proud and rich heritage, would not want their name associated with a school of higher education that also has proud and rich heritage."

Another commenter said UND teams "will always be the Sioux to me ... and I will always wear my Sioux clothing with pride."

But a UND alumnus and enrolled member of a South Dakota Sioux tribe noted that the tribe went on record opposing the nickname in 1988.

"Here it is 21 years later and we're still debating the issue," the alum wrote. "Those of you who think Indians are to be used as caricatures that you can mock, please stand in our shoes and feel what we experience every day."

Proud traditions

Tim O'Keefe, executive vice president of UND's Alumni Association, said he continues "to support the institution" as it adjusts to the new marching orders.

"The higher education board clearly is feeling pressure to move the process along, and I think there's a need within the university community to do as well," O'Keefe said.

"Now the issue is even more clearly in the hands of Standing Rock and Spirit Lake. It's probably unfair that it's been thrown on them" because tribal members will face criticism no matter which way they lean, he said.

As a third-generation UND letter winner, the former Fighting Sioux hockey player said he remains "very proud of the accomplishments that have been made with the name Sioux. It's one of the most powerful names in collegiate athletics. Unfortunately, it's drawn controversy."

Moving the timetable up "is probably better for all of us," O'Keefe said. "It hurts a lot of us to see the broad range of emotions that continue."