UND NICKNAME: Testimony on N.D. bills divided, often passionateMembers of the State Board of Higher Education did all they could over the past three years to afford the people of North Dakota’s two Sioux Indian tribes opportunities to speak to the UND Fighting Sioux nickname controversy, board Vice President Grant Shaft told a legislative committee Wednesday.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
BISMARCK — Members of the State Board of Higher Education did all they could over the past three years to afford the people of North Dakota’s two Sioux Indian tribes opportunities to speak to the UND Fighting Sioux nickname controversy, board Vice President Grant Shaft told a legislative committee Wednesday.
That included direct appeals to tribal leaders, formation of a statewide committee that sought to engage tribal leadership, renewing outreach to the Standing Rock tribe after a tribal election there and watching to see what happened with referendum efforts at Standing Rock and the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation.
“I am unable to think of any additional action, nor has anyone been able to suggest additional action, that the State Board of Higher Education or any government official or any tribal or private party could have taken to secure the approval of both tribes,” Shaft told members of the House Education Committee.
The committee is considering three bills that would have the university and state board halt the transition process and restore the 80-year-old symbols, and members heard more than eight hours of often passionate testimony from dozens of people on both sides of the long controversial issue.
“We told you no,” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard of Standing Rock said as the hearing stretched into the evening. It had begun at 9 a.m., broke for lunch and a brief floor session, then resumed at 2 p.m. and continued past 7 p.m.
“We’ll tell you no again,” Brave Bull Allard said, speaking forcefully. “And my grandchildren will be here to tell you no.”
But John Chaske, an elder of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, also cited grandchildren — as well as history, tradition, a tribal referendum and other factors — as he sought to persuade legislators to join the fight to preserve the nickname and logo.
“I took my two grandchildren to see a hockey game” at Ralph Engelstad Arena, he said during morning testimony. “I saw the pride swell in these two children. They were proud to be Sioux at that moment.
“Why would anyone want to destroy this?”
Chaske was among about a dozen people who spoke for retaining the nickname and logo, which UND is transitioning away from under direction from the State Board of Higher Education. About as many opponents sat through that parade, then offered their own testimony.
Several proponents of keeping the symbols suggested that the state board had not handled the matter well and had wasted chances to win authorization to retain the nickname and logo.
Shaft, a Grand Forks attorney, said he wasn’t appearing either to support or oppose the legislative efforts but to explain the process the board went through since the 2007 settlement with the NCAA, which left open the possibility the name and logo could be kept if the board won the approval of both namesake Sioux tribes.
Shaft said he had “primary responsibility for addressing the nickname issue” on the board, and he outlined a series of steps taken by the board and chancellor — and the consistent opposition raised by the Standing Rock Tribal Council.
Shaft also challenged a news report Tuesday that quoted Tom Douple, commissioner of the Summit League, as saying UND President Robert Kelley pressured him to publicly speak about the nickname issue being a problem for UND’s application for league membership.
When North Dakota University System Chancellor William Goetz and others went to see the commissioner at league headquarters in Chicago, “I was one of the board members who attended that meeting,” Shaft said, “and I have to take issue with Mr. Douple’s comment.”
Kelley, who disputed Douple’s remarks earlier Wednesday, repeated the denial when he testified — like Shaft, neither in favor of nor in opposition to the bills.
“That is false,” he said when asked about the commissioner’s account. “There has never been any pressure from my office on my part or, to the best of my knowledge, anyone else in the administration.”
Kelley also denied that anyone had given him “assurances” that the nickname issue would be resolved early when he was considering accepting the position as president in 2008, a suggestion raised earlier in the day by Earl Strinden, former head of the UND Alumni Association, former House Republican leader and a strong advocate for keeping the nickname.
“I will categorically tell you that is false,” Kelley said. “I was given no assurances this would be resolved early. I was not hired to take a position on the name and logo.”
Jon Backes, president of the state board, spoke in favor of the legislative process concerning the nickname issue but -- like the board as a whole -- was neutral on the bills.
“I understand fully the emotion that comes with this issue,” he said. But he noted, “the popularity of the nickname and logo are a tribute to the manner in which UND portrays them.”
Speakers against the nickname bills included Rep. Lonnie Winrich, D-Grand Forks.
He said the symbols have caused controversy and “rancor” on campus ever since he joined the UND faculty in 1985. Also, UND and the state “can’t exist in a vacuum,” oblivious to a strong movement across the country against the use of American Indian names and symbols for athletic teams.
He was questioned by Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan and the committee chairwoman, who said that she graduated from UND in the 1980s “and I don’t remember the controversy.”
It often stemmed “from over-zealous attempts to belittle opponents,” Winrich said. “I don’t believe there are deliberate attempts by members of the university community to show disrespect,” he said, but rather “incidental things” that grew out of the presence and use of the nickname.
Jesse Taken Alive, a Standing Rock Tribal Council member and longtime opponent of the nickname, said he was “deeply offended by some of the comments made about our government today,” including complaints by Spirit Lake and Standing Rock members that the council wouldn’t let the people of Standing Rock speak through a referendum.
“We’ve done this since 1992,” he said, citing a series of council actions against the UND use of the name and logo.
“We don’t want this to be a divisive issue on our reservation,” he said. “The policy of ‘divide and conquer’ contributed to our demise, and our young people continually tell us this.”
Several American Indian students at UND also asked lawmakers not to extend the issue, saying the nickname and logo did contribute to an atmosphere where racist and abusive incidents occurred. Birgit Hans, chair of UND’s department of Indian Studies, said the continuing controversy “makes it impossible for faculty and staff at UND to perform our academic mission.”
Long day of testimony
Kelsch started Wednesday’s hearing with a warning to the more than 150 people who packed a large hearing room. “Potentially, these hearings could become emotional, perhaps contentious,” she said, and she promised “one warning” before she would order the ejection of people who were disruptive.
Two of the bills under consideration would direct UND and the State Board to restore the nickname and logo unless they received a formal notice from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposing their use. The third bill, introduced by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo and House majority leader, would simply declare that UND athletic teams “shall be known as ... the Fighting Sioux,” and any transition steps taken so far would be preempted.
“We’re here to hear what the people have to say” about the name and logo, Carlson said, referring to failed attempts to arrange a referendum on the issue at Standing Rock.
Under terms of a lawsuit settlement between the state board and the NCAA, which had threatened sanctions against UND athletics if the “hostile and abusive” nickname and logo were not retired, the board was given time to seek approval for their use from Spirit Lake and Standing Rock. Spirit Lake voters overwhelmingly gave their OK, but repeated attempts to arrange a vote at Standing Rock were thwarted by the tribal government, which reaffirmed earlier Tribal Council resolutions opposing use of the Sioux name and imagery.
Carlson said the matter “was poorly handled” by the state board.
“This is North Dakota history,” Carlson said of the longtime symbols at UND and the 1969 ceremony involving several elders from Standing Rock who made former UND President George Starcher an honorary chief and authorized use of the nickname.
“That was a big deal,” Carlson said.
He said he is confident that the constitutionality of his bill would be upheld despite the state board’s own standing within the state Constitution.
He noted that some problems occurred on campus during the 1970s that showed disrespect toward American Indians, “and they tried to deal with them.” He also cited former President Thomas Clifford’s successful efforts to build Indian studies programs and other opportunities at UND.
“If I felt in any way this name was demeaning, I would not have introduced this bill,” Carlson said.
Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, testified on his nickname bill.
Monson, a former House speaker, said he earned degrees from UND in 1972 and 1983 and has been “a lifelong Sioux fan” who believes the nickname and logo “show great honor” to the Sioux people.
He called the NCAA “a bully” for threatening UND with sanctions.
“How do you deal with a bully?” he asked. “You stand up to them. You don’t run away.”
As to suggestions it’s too late to stop the transition, Monson said, “it’s never too late to right a wrong.”
Eunice Davidson, leader of the Committee for Understanding and Respect formed at Spirit Lake to champion the Fighting Sioux nickname, told lawmakers that she and many other members of the tribe take pride in its use at UND.
“When I was very young, I had a lot of negative (experiences) in my life,” she said, but “I started to feel better about myself” because of the respect shown the name.
“If it were not for that name, I would not have the strength to stand here today,” she said. “I never thought of it as derogatory or abusive.”
Several enrolled members of the Standing Rock tribe also spoke for the nickname and the bills designed to sustain it.
Archie Fool Bear provided a history of his efforts to arrange a tribal vote on the issue, and he argued that the Standing Rock Tribal Council “does not have the power to take the name away” after it was authorized by the 1969 pipe ceremony.
The council’s refusal to allow a popular vote and to thwart UND’s continuing use of the symbols “is dishonoring those people who gave the name,” he said.
“They don’t want the people to be heard because they know what the outcome is going to be.”
Diane Gates, an enrolled member at Standing Rock, said her father, Edward Loon, was among the elders who participated in the 1969 ceremony.
“He told us that our people must live both cultures and reach out and get an education to achieve their dreams,” she said. “We must respect and honor and learn from each other.”
Interspersed with the testimony were videos, including the “Sioux Pride” video shown before home athletic events at UND, and one showing the 2008 “flag ceremony” at which the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribal flags were hung from the rafters at Ralph Engelstad Arena following drumming, songs and prayers offered by elders from the tribes.
Linus End of Horn, who said he is a blood descendant of Chief Gall, “who stood beside Sitting Bull,” attended the 2008 flag ceremony at UND with other members of his family. He was on leave from the U.S. armed forces at the time.
“I am a fighting Sioux,” he said, and the experience at UND convinced him that “we as Sioux people will always be remembered through this school” and its use of the name and logo.
Chaske took part in the flag ceremony, which referred frequently to the 1969 ceremony.
“Since that time, there have been many doors opened to education for our people at UND,” he said.
The terms “hostile and abusive,” applied by the NCAA to campuses where teams sport the names and logos of American Indian tribes, “are more descriptive of the treatment Spirit Lake has received from the state board,” he said, and the people of Spirit Lake stand with “the athletes who proudly represent the fighting spirit of our ancestors.”
Kelsch said the committee probably won’t act on the three bills until next week and possibly later.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to email@example.com.