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North Dakota Board of Higher Education split on Sioux nickname deadline

GRAND FORKS -- Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Charlie Murphy has written a letter rejecting any deadline on UND's Fighting Sioux nickname, but there are differences of opinion among State Board of Higher Education members about what that actually means.

Board Chairman Richie Smith said it's pretty clear to him that the tribe won't work under a deadline. If that's the case, "I wouldn't personally extend the deadline," he said Monday. "This issue is more or less holding UND back from going on about its business," he said.

Without a deadline extension, the board likely would ask UND to begin retiring the 79-year-old nickname, which some have decried as racist.

Board member Grant Shaft, who's from Grand Forks, took a different view.

"I took it as though they are wanting to dialogue with this, as though the month of November would be useful to them," he said. If there was some indication that Standing Rock leaders are working to make a decision on the nickname, he said he doesn't see a problem giving the tribe more time.

"I don't want the deadline to be a deterrent in itself for the tribe from being able to speak on the issue," he said.

The board is scheduled to meet Nov. 19 at Minot State University, and Smith said he expects the nickname deadline will come up then.

Shaft said he understands there's a Tribal Council meeting Nov. 9. If the tribe reaches a consensus on the nickname then, he said, it would affect the board's discussion.

Not priority

There are multiple deadlines, some official and some unofficial.

The most recent deadline was Oct. 31. By that time, the board needed to hear from the Standing Rock tribal chairman about whether he would be willing to hold a referendum on the nickname, which could pave the way for acceptance of the nickname by the tribe as a whole.

If the chairman indicated he would hold a referendum, the board then could extend the deadline to Nov. 30 to give the tribe time.

(Note that by meeting Nov. 19, the board appears to have extended the deadline to at least that point by default.)

But Murphy doesn't accept deadlines and said so in a letter dated Oct. 30.

"I believe that my administration would be open to discuss the matter but would prefer an open dialogue as opposed to a stipulated arrangement under deadline," Murphy wrote.

He expressed his understanding that the board wants to resolve the issue expeditiously, but "to be quite honest, this issue is not at the top of the new administration's list of priority matters."

Murphy also mentions that "members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are clearly divided in the matter."

Attempts to reach Murphy were unsuccessful Monday.

Summit League

For some board members, Dec. 31 is another deadline. Shaft said no board member is willing to cross that threshold.

The driving force behind the deadlines is UND's desire to apply to the Summit League athletic conference as soon as possible. The mostly Midwestern league is seen as a good fit for the university, but the league won't consider an application until the nickname issue is resolved.

With the start of the new year, league members will begin working on scheduling, Shaft said, and it would be harmful if UND still were struggling with the nickname.

In recent meetings, board members have indicated they were anxious to move on after shuffling deadlines to wait out the Standing Rock tribe.

The Tribal Council at the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation, the other Sioux tribe in the state, approved the nickname after a referendum in which 67 percent of tribal members gave their approval.

Shaft recognized that many board members feel what he called "issue fatigue."

"Those of us here in Grand Forks, we're more on the front line of the issue," he said. "This issue for board members that aren't here in Grand Forks isn't as front and center."

Final deadline

Little discussed since the Summit League application became entwined with the nickname issue is the deadline set by the settlement with the NCAA: Nov. 30, 2010.

The NCAA considers American Indian nicknames offensive and, in a compromise with UND, agreed to give the university until then to win approval of the state's two Sioux tribes to keep using the nickname.

The board pushed the deadline forward by more than a year because of the Summit League.

A key question is what would happen between the board deadline this year and the NCAA settlement deadline if Standing Rock were to approve the nickname. That is, if UND had begun retiring the nickname, could and would the board go into reverse and accept the nickname once more?

Smith said it's "theoretically" possible, as Shaft had earlier.

But there could be a lot of surprises ahead that affect the nickname transition, he said. "Lord only knows what would come up down the road."

There are issues, he said, such as the transition to Division I athletics, scheduling of games and meets, league affiliation, changes required at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, not to mention the polarizing nature of the nickname on campus. "We have a lot of different constituencies that have their skin in the game."

Asked if the state board would remain engaged with the Sioux tribes if the deadline stands, Smith said he thinks not.

"If the decision's made then we're done with it," he said. "If the tribe drops the nickname, I don't think there would be any reason to maintain contact with the tribe over this issue, not unless they initiated the discussion."