Legislators ready to change Sioux nickname law, Grand Forks delegation wants to move on
GRAND FORKS -- When the 2011 North Dakota Legislature approved legislation that gave the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname the weight of law, the 12-member delegation representing Grand Forks and the university broke with the majority.
Citing concerns about potentially harmful consequences to UND, eight of the city's legislators -- six Democrats and two Republicans -- voted against the nickname bill offered by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo.
Four Republicans -- representatives Stacey Dahl, Mark Owens and Curt Kreun and Sen. Lonnie Laffen -- voted with big majorities in both chambers to approve the law.
After a state delegation failed this month to negotiate a change in the NCAA's posture concerning the nickname, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he will ask the Legislature to repeal or amend the new law and turn authority over the issue to the State Board of Higher Education.
This time, the Grand Forks delegation appears likely to be unanimous.
"I'm willing to vote to repeal the law," Dahl said.
"At the time, with the best information we had, we said we'd try one last effort to save that tradition and history," she said. "But clearly there has been no movement from the NCAA, and it didn't work out the way we'd hoped. So I'm willing to move forward."
Dahl said there never was any intent "to cause harm to the university," but she is persuaded that to continue fighting now to save the nickname threatens problems. "That can be avoided, but we'll have to repeal the law," she said.
Owens said he is "completely disappointed" by how things turned out, but he also is likely to vote in November for legislation allowing the nickname's retirement.
He said his vote for the pro-nickname bill "was strictly based on responses I received from (my) District 17."
He had participated in a legislative forum in Grand Forks in February, while three bills supporting the nickname were pending, and was asked how he would vote on them.
"I stated then that I had heard only from a few people about it, and most of them said I should vote no and let the nickname go," he said. "But after that, I started getting emails and phone calls like you wouldn't believe," and the vast majority of those people urged him to vote for the nickname bill.
"I expect a bill or bills to be brought forward to change the law," he said of the November special session. "I don't like to say how I'll vote on something before I get a chance to see it, but I am inclined now -- as much as I dearly hate it -- I'm inclined to let the name go now as the best way for Grand Forks and the university to move forward.
"I think it's a shame. A small group of people don't like it, and it hurts their feelings. Well, when did we become the democracy of the minority?"
Laffen said he believes there is "a very high chance the Legislature will change what we did before," and he, too, intends to vote that way.
"I'm going to support retiring the name," he said. "I think all the options have been exhausted. It's out of our hands."
Like Owens and others, he said he's disappointed that an accommodation couldn't be reached with the NCAA.
"Most of the Native American people who spoke to me in Bismarck really want to keep the name," he said. "They think it's an honor, and I feel we're not listening to them again. But it's too harmful for the university to keep going. Losing our conference affiliation and not having opponents to play is not an option."
Kreun: 'We'll work through'
Kreun said he remains "extremely disappointed with the NCAA" for "labeling the state of North Dakota 'hostile and abusive' without doing the research." In the 2007 settlement with the state, the NCAA backed off that characterization, he said, "but it's still out there, and it keeps getting repeated."
But "I would not do anything that would harm the university," he said, "and with the information I have, I'm prepared to go along with" the proposed change in state law.
"It's going to be hard, and I agree with Rep. Carlson that the NCAA is hurting the very people they claim to be helping. But we'll make it a positive and work through it. We'll make this work, with the changes required by the NCAA."
Sen. Connie Triplett said she "would be stunned" if any of her Democratic colleagues did not vote in November to repeal or amend the nickname law.
Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, who represents Grand Forks' District 17, also voted against the Carlson bill and said he will vote for repeal.
"The information we received during the session that caused me to vote no is the same information we're getting now," that to persist in the fight is to jeopardize UND's athletic program and hurt student athletes, he said.
Holmberg said he thought it was appropriate for Dalrymple and Carlson to lead a state delegation to Indianapolis to speak directly with leaders of the NCAA.
"I think they had to go," he said. "I don't fault them for going down and giving it the old college try."
Republican Rep. Mark Sanford also voted against the nickname bill during the regular session, citing the potential damage to the university from a protracted fight.
"My sense during the regular session was that issues of conference affiliation and scheduling were not going to go away, and they haven't," he said. "The NCAA is not backing down, and the university and its teams and fans would be affected. It's a matter of practicality."
Sanford and other members of the delegation said UND will need to conduct the transition in a way that honors the nickname's history.
"It was there a long time, it was important and it deserves to be honored," Sanford said.
Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks
Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.