ARCHIVE EXTRA: Stenehjem: State board 'squandered' opportunity (April 15, 2010)Attorney general says SBHE missed chance to get tribes' blessing to use Sioux nickname
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
The State Board of Higher Education "squandered" the opportunity to get namesake tribes' blessing for UND's continued use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told a Minot audience Tuesday.
Stenehjem sued the NCAA in 2006 on behalf of the state board after the athletic association declared a ban on Indian nicknames and imagery it deemed "hostile and abusive." The following year, he negotiated a settlement with the NCAA that allowed UND to keep the nickname and logo if it could win the blessing of the two namesake tribes, Spirit Lake and Standing Rock.
"I got them three years of time in which they could attempt to get namesake approval," Stenehjem said.
The board, which voted in May 2009 to begin the nickname's retirement, suspended that action while attempts continued to win tribal blessings for its use and while a group of Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members who support the nickname appealed to the courts.
When the state Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court's ruling that the higher education board has the authority to decide the nickname's fate, the board refused to reconsider the May 2009 vote and directed UND to begin the transition away from Fighting Sioux.
"Constitutionally, the board of higher education has the authority to make that call," Stenehjem said, according to an account in Wednesday's Minot Daily News. "I don't quarrel with that. That's what the constitution says.
But I do not think that they used that period of time wisely. I think basically that they squandered the time that I was able to get for them.
"And now that they've announced they're going to retire the name, what can be done about it? I'm fearful that there isn't a whole lot that can be done at this time."
Grant Shaft, a Grand Forks attorney and member of the state board, disputed the attorney general's analysis.
"I have great respect for our attorney general and his opinions," Shaft said Wednesday after reviewing Stenehjem's remarks. "In this instance, I strongly disagree.
"His active involvement in obtaining tribal approval ended when we signed our agreement with the NCAA in 2007. His comments today have to be characterized as those of an armchair warrior or Monday morning quarterback to those of us who have been fighting for approval on a daily basis for the past 2½ years."
'We got close'
In an interview Wednesday, Stenehjem said he stood by his remarks Tuesday to members of the Minot Kiwanis Club.
"I sat back quietly and didn't say anything" about the board's action until he was asked direct questions at the Minot meeting, he said.
"I know they (board members) spent a lot of time on the issue. But so did I," Stenehjem said. "I spent a lot of time negotiating an agreement that - for the first time - would ask the Indian people what they felt about the issue. The NCAA was practically intractable at the outset."
And the agreement was working out in favor of UND retaining the nickname and logo, he said. "As time went along, we got pretty darn close to it. The vote at Spirit Lake was a landslide. We were on the brink of getting the same thing at Standing Rock." Nowa great many people at Spirit Lake and Standing Rock "are not very happy," Stenehjem said, because the efforts to hear from the Sioux people "never had a chance to play out."
He said he believes the new Standing Rock leaders "would have taken action at some point on the petitions" that were presented to the tribal council last week bearing more than 1,000 signatures.
"They could have a plebiscite, they could have a poll, they could do anything they want, but ultimately the expression of approval or disapproval had to come from the tribal government.
"Now, if they do put it on the ballot, it will be colored by the board's indication that they don't want it."
In a report published in Wednesday's Herald, Shaft used the term "exhaustive" to describe the board's efforts to hear from Standing Rock.
"We sent the chancellor to talk with tribal leaders," he said." We formed a committee, asked for meetings and heard several presentations by Ron His Horse Is Thunder," former tribal chairman.
"He emphatically said no (to a referendum) and said it was not constitutionally possible," Shaft said. "Then, we waited for tribal elections and sure enough, there was new leadership, but they said this issue was not a high priority."
Stenehjem said he believes a referendum at Standing Rock would result in a vote even more favorable to retention of the nickname than the two-thirds majority approval registered at Spirit Lake last year.
The attorney general said Standing Rock could still arrange an election before Nov. 30, the deadline established in the settlement with the NCAA, and give the nickname and logo the OK.
"But even then, if it happens, the board has to reverse itself," he said.
He said he was disappointed with the board's action last week, when member Claus Lembke's motion to reconsider the May 2009 vote failed for lack of a second and Chancellor Bill Goetz was directed to advise UND President Robert Kelley to begin the transition.
"I thought it was a sad day, especially having worked as hard as I did to get them the additional time," Stenehjem said. "I think if it had played out, it could've been successful."
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