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House approves, Gov. signs UND nickname bill

BISMARCK -- This wasn't an easy vote. It wasn't an easy speech.

"Since I was a little girl who made day trips from Bismarck to Grand Forks to watch Fighting Sioux sports, I have identified this name and symbol with an institution that I love very much," Rep. Stacey Dahl, R-Grand Forks, said on the floor of the North Dakota House early Wednesday morning.

"It is emotional and difficult to imagine one without the other," she said.

But she was asking the House to sever the 81-year-old nickname from the university to protect the institution.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed that brief bit of legislation later Wednesday, repealing the North Dakota law that mandates the University of North Dakota's use of the Fighting Sioux nickname, bringing an apparent end to a long-running controversy that pitted the state against the NCAA, kept UND churning and divided the state's American Indian population.

But the end has been declared before in the fight over Fighting Sioux, and nickname supporters at the Spirit Lake Sioux Nation vowed to fight on in defense of a name and logo they say honors them.

The House approved the repeal bill by a lopsided margin almost exactly opposite of the vote cast in that chamber to defend the nickname and logo in February. The vote was 63-31. The Senate had approved the measure Tuesday evening, 39-7.

Wistful tone

Debate in both chambers took on a wistful and sometimes angry tone.

Everybody can agree, Dahl said, that "the NCAA has been frustratingly obstinate" in its dealings with UND.

The NCAA adopted a policy in 2005 seeking to eliminate the use of American Indian names, mascots and imagery by member schools, joining a national movement that has seen scores of colleges and universities and hundreds of high schools drop such symbols. UND vehemently objected to the NCAA's characterization of its nickname and logo as "harmful and abusive" and sued the association.

The NCAA granted exemptions to Florida State (the Seminoles), Central Michigan (the Chippewas) and Utah (the Utes) because those schools obtained the blessing of namesake tribes, and in a 2007 settlement of its lawsuit UND agreed to drop the Sioux name if it failed to get the approval of the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes.

Spirit Lake said yes. Standing Rock said no. North Dakota sent a large delegation, led by the governor, to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to plead for some relief.

The NCAA said no, and on Aug. 15 the association placed UND on sanctions. University officials raised alarms about losing membership in the

Big Sky Conference and watching its athletics program deteriorate.

Preserving athletics

"What they failed to realize or consider," Dahl told the House, "was the honor and dignity by which the name was used and our unique relationship with our native citizens. What seems particularly offensive is the disregard of our state's Native American voices in this process."

But continuing the fight for the nickname will hurt UND's athletic program and its student athletes, she said, by leading to problems in conference affiliation and scheduling of opponents.

Dahl had been with the majority when the House passed a bill in February enshrining the nickname in state law. That vote was 65-28.

"We thought this law may give us the leverage we needed to persuade the NCAA to change its mind," she said. "I'm glad we tried."

The State Board of Higher Education, anticipating this week's legislative action, had voted in August to direct UND President Robert Kelley to begin preparing for a transition that could be substantially completed by the end of the year.

Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by

Forum Communications Co.