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Spirit Lake accuses UND of failing to respond to open records request

BISMARCK -- On the eve of the North Dakota Legislature's return to the Fighting Sioux nickname debate, the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe has accused UND of failing to respond to its requests for email records concerning the issue.

Spirit Lake Tribe logo

BISMARCK -- On the eve of the North Dakota Legislature's return to the Fighting Sioux nickname debate, the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe has accused UND of failing to respond to its requests for email records concerning the issue.

The pro-nickname Committee for Understanding and Respect, acting under authority granted by the Tribal Council, said Sunday that it has asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to rule on whether UND officials violated state open records laws by failing to respond to the committee's requests.

The requests for email communications regarding the nickname between UND, the State Board of Higher Education, the NCAA and the Big Sky Conference were made Oct. 10, according to Frank Black Cloud, spokesman for the committee.

The Legislature adopted a law in March requiring UND to keep using the Sioux name despite sanctions threatened by the NCAA. A bill to repeal that law is expected to be introduced today as lawmakers gather here for a weeklong special session, and a hearing is tentatively scheduled for this afternoon.

Black Cloud said the only response the committee has received from UND was an acknowledgment that the request had been received.

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Peter Johnson, executive associate vice president for university relations, said the university did provide the committee Sunday with an estimate of costs related to the retrieval of the requested emails: aboiut $5,000 in all.

"It's rather an extensive request -- literally thousands of emails" from many accounts at several different systems, Johnson said.

He said university officials "have been following through with due diligence" on the committee's requests, and he estimated that more than 100 hours of staff time had gone toward retrieval of the correspondence. One of the named individuals is on sabbatical, he added.

He also said the committee "never made it clear" that it wanted the information prior to the start of the special legislative session, "and I'm not sure we could have complied with the request in that time anyway."

The state's open records laws "require a response from UND within a reasonable amount of time," the committee's statement said, and the time elapsed in this case exceeds guidelines provided by the attorney general's office.

The committee seeks emails concerning the nickname and logo issue since July 1, 2008, between UND President Robert Kelley, university spokesman Peter Johnson, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Paul Lebel, Athletic Director Brian Faison, Director of American Indian Student Services Leigh Jeanotte and two UND professors who have been critics of the nickname's continued use: Lucy Ganje and Sharon Carson.

The request also seeks emails between those individuals, past and present state board members and North Dakota University System chancellors.

A second request asks for emails since July 1, 2008, between Kelley, Johnson, Lebel, Faison, past and present state board members and chancellors, and past and present NCAA officials. The committee also seeks relevant emails from officials of Summit League and Big Sky Conference member schools.

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UND, in the midst of a transition to Division I athletics, has talked first with the Summit League and now with the Big Sky Conference about membership, and the Big Sky has scheduled UND for admission next year, However, member school presidents have expressed concern about the continued uncertainty over the nickname and logo, a key reason why UND and state board officials have said the university must be allowed to move on and retire the symbols.

Ardent nickname supporters counter that loss of conference affiliation and possible problems in scheduling and recruitment are red herrings, risks that are only speculation designed to create fear and not supported by facts.

"It has been close to a month," Black Cloud said Sunday. "We have not even received an indication that UND is even looking into something as simple as what the cost of getting the information will be. We really have no choice but to conclude that UND doesn't want the information we asked for to get out, and (university officials) are dragging their feet so it can't (be provided) before the Legislature considers a repeal of the law.

"They are simply repeating the same pattern of ignoring us when it comes to our name and likeness," he said.

Black Cloud said the committee members "acknowledges the broad scope of their requests," but a timely response from UND "would have helped them refine their requests if necessary, and otherwise allowed them to do their part to ultimately ensure the information was available for their testimony."

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