Grant Shaft and Duaine Espegard column: Board led 'exhaustive' efforts to win approval

GRAND FORKS -- On April 8, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education directed UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. As expected, a significant amount of discussion has unfolded regarding this decision.

Espegard and Shaft
Duane Espegard and Grant Shaft.

GRAND FORKS -- On April 8, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education directed UND to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. As expected, a significant amount of discussion has unfolded regarding this decision.

The most common criticism is that the board did not give the Standing Rock Sioux tribe a chance to vote on the nickname and logo issue. In response, we offer the following summary of board actions.

Initial actions

The settlement with the NCAA let UND keep competing under the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo for a period of three years. In order to continue the use, the board needed to get written approval from both the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribal leadership before Nov. 30, 2010.

If the approval was received, UND could continue to use the name and logo until such time as either tribe's leadership revoked their permission. Therefore, from the date of settlement forward, the board has sought two resolves -- namely, written permission from both tribes AND a long-term agreement so that the usage would not be jeopardized each time there is a tribal election or referendum.


Immediately following the NCAA settlement, the board unanimously supported an exhaustive effort to obtain tribal approval. The spirit of the agreement intended meetings at the highest level of both higher education and tribal government. This effort involved engaging all interested constituencies, including the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake leadership, Ralph Engelstad Arena, UND, alumni and local, state and federal officials.

The chancellor of the North Dakota University System had several meetings and follow-up discussions with the leadership of both tribes. Both tribal councils emphatically opposed UND's continued usage of the name and logo.

During this same time period, the board monitored private efforts with both tribes to obtain approval. These, too, were not successful.

By October 2008, both the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribal councils continued their opposition to the nickname and logo and formally stated to the board that they would not participate in any further discussions. Still, the board resolved to continue making every effort to obtain their approval.

A committee was formed to engage the tribal leadership. Considerable time and effort was spent ensuring that the committee consisted of equal representation from nickname supporters and those opposed, including members from both tribes, UND, Ralph Engelstad Arena, government officials and the Grand Forks community.

The committee made several written requests to all tribal leaders to meet. NONE of our written requests were answered, nor were our phone calls. The committee therefore was unable to engage the tribal leadership.

Despite this rejection by the tribal leadership, the board kept on trying to obtain approval. Because the tribal leadership was not receptive, the board embraced the referendum process at Spirit Lake.

Through the great effort of Spirit Lake tribal members, a successful referendum vote was held, requiring the Spirit Lake tribal council to adopt a resolution authorizing UND to use the nickname and logo. (It should be noted that petition efforts currently are under way at Spirit Lake to revoke this authorization.)


The Summit League

While the above process was ongoing, UND's president and the university's athletic director notified the board that UND wished to seek league affiliation with the Division I Summit League, the same league in which North Dakota State University, the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University currently are members. This decision was based on many factors including lack of other available leagues, scheduling, travel expenses, renewal of prior rivalries and automatic bids into NCAA tournaments.

According to UND, the university's lack of solid league affiliation was jeopardizing UND's transition to Division I athletics.

But the Summit League refused to consider UND's application until the nickname and logo issue was resolved. And rather than wait for UND, the Summit League intended to keep reviewing other interested schools in hopes of filling its league needs.

It certainly would have been prudent for the board simply to rely on the request of UND's president and athletic director. But given the potential impact to the Fighting Sioux name and logo, the chancellor, board president and two board members traveled to the Summit League offices in Chicago and met with the league's director to confirm the league's position.

The league's director confirmed the information provided by UND, including the possibility that the league would find another school to fill the opening sought by UND.

Based on the urgency presented by UND and the Summit League's position, the board was forced to determine whether it was in the best interest of UND and its athletic programs to delay application to the Summit League until Nov. 30 or to shorten the time line for tribal approval so as to accommodate the application.

In May 2009, Standing Rock's leadership again appeared before the board to formally express their continued opposition to the nickname and logo. They also informed the board that there was a tribal moratorium on the issue and that the referendum process was not available under the Standing Rock constitution.


This opposition was underscored in August, when the Standing Rock leadership refused to schedule a referendum vote requested by members of the tribe. The Standing Rock leadership appeared before the board again on Sept. 17 to restate its position.

Despite the urgency of UND's application to the Summit League and Standing Rock's clear opposition to name and logo approval, the board resolved to continue working for Standing Rock's approval in light of upcoming tribal elections in the fall of 2009.

Elections at Standing Rock

The elections were held, and a new chairman was elected along with some new council members.

With hope of a change of posture on the part of the new leadership, the chancellor and several board members immediately met with Charles Murphy, the new tribal chairman, in order to clearly convey the urgency of the situation along with what approvals were needed.

Murphy conveyed that the moratorium on referendum elections remained intact, that the name and logo issue was of low priority and that even if an agreement could be reached, it would not be binding on future elected councils. In other words, the council could change its mind at any time.

Even in light of this disappointing position by the new chairman, the board continued to delay taking action on the name and logo while some tribal members at Standing Rock petitioned for a referendum, in spite of the existing moratorium on the same.

On April 6, the Standing Rock Tribal Council had the chance to act on the signatures of more than 1,000 members seeking a referendum vote.

The council did not consider the petitions, did not approve a referendum and reconfirmed that it does not have a current policy allowing for a referendum vote.

In addition to communications to the board regarding its opposition, the Standing Rock Tribal Council has formally resolved on eight occasions between 1992 and 2009 to oppose UND's use of the nickname and logo or placing the issue on the ballot.

On April 8, based on the continued opposition from Standing Rock's leadership and information that UND's application would need to be submitted to the Summit League by June 1 in order to be considered for membership and competition in 2012, the board directed UND President Robert Kelley to proceed with retiring the nickname and logo.

The above information is presented in summary fashion and cannot do justice to the hundreds of hours spent by board members trying to secure approval from both tribes.

The time and effort invested by board members greatly exceeds any reasonable expectations of such a board. Nevertheless, we have been dedicated to doing so even at the expense of other issues vital to UND and the other 10 institutions in North Dakota.

To this date, all eight voting members of the board continue to believe that UND's use of the nickname and logo always has been respectful and dignified. We were asked to balance Standing Rock's approval against UND's need to find a Division I league.

The board decided to let UND to submit its Summit League application by June 1.

Both Shaft and Espegard are Grand Forks residents and members of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education.

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