Standing Rock supporters of UND nickname hold out hope they can get referendum on ballot

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Standing Rock supporters of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname continue to hope that they can get the issue on the ballot as a referendum within the next two months.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Standing Rock supporters of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname continue to hope that they can get the issue on the ballot as a referendum within the next two months.

Archie Fool Bear, a nickname proponent, said his group is still gathering signatures to persuade the Tribal Council to give tribal members a say.

In May 2008, the council voted to ban any nickname referendum indefinitely. In May of this year, some members of the council tried to reverse that but were narrowly defeated, Fool Bear said.

That proves to him, he said, that not the entire council is intent on blocking a vote. If he can get enough signatures together, he could talk to some opposing council members and see if they'd change their mind, he said.

So, contrary to nickname supporters' earlier expectations, the Tribal Council appears to be central to the nickname issue.


For UND to retain the nickname, which opponents say is racist and creates a hostile campus environment, the Tribal Councils of both the namesake tribes in the state must approve. The State Board of Higher Education in May added another requirement: a 30-year agreement to keep the nickname from both councils. The deadline, the board said, is Oct. 1.

Eunice Davidson, a nickname supporter in the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation, said the Tribal Council there hasn't approved the nickname yet, though she expects it'll happen soon. She and other supporters got the issue on the ballot in April, and 67.3 percent of voters approved.

Signatures needed

Standing Rock nickname supporters think the nickname would win support there, too, if voters were given a chance.

While nickname opponents contend that "Sioux" is a derogatory word meaning "snake" given to them by other tribes, many Sioux do not feel that way, as shown by the Spirit Lake vote. In June 2008, Standing Rock supporters considered changing the tribe's name from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to Standing Rock Oyate and rejected it.

The Bismarck Tribune said 60 percent voted "no."

Fool Bear said that shows a majority doesn't side with nickname opponents.

He and other supporters will need about 1,490 signatures for a nickname referendum. He said the tribal constitution requires the signatures of 20 percent of the voting-age population, as determined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs survey.


Spirit Lake nickname supporters needed only about 300 signatures because they needed only a percentage of voter turnout from the previous election.

Earlier, Standing Rock nickname supporters had hoped to get the eight district councils to approve nicknames and bring pressure on the council. One of the district councils, the one in Cannon Ball, did support the nickname, but the effort fizzled out after getting thrown into a Tribal Council committee, Fool Bear said.

The signature gathering effort is more labor intensive because there's a lot more people to convince, though nickname supporters think a majority of the tribe here wants a say in the nickname.

There is another long-standing obstacle to a nickname referendum, and that's tribal Chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder's contention that a referendum would not be binding in any way. Only a constitutional amendment is binding, and a vote on that takes many months to put together.

Fool Bear said he's heard that but disagrees that a referendum isn't enough.

Tribal council

A factor that may favor the nickname supporters is this week's primary election, which put at-large council member Charles W. Murphy in the lead to be the new chairman after the Sept. 30 general election.

Murphy has 567 votes while incumbent His Horse is Thunder got 223 votes, in unofficial results. But the incumbent beat the third-place winner, Vice Chairwoman Avis Little Eagle, by only two votes, triggering a recount. Only the two top vote-getters will be on the ballot in September, meaning there's a possibility His Horse is Thunder will be bumped out.


Murphy, who opposed the nickname in the 1990s when he was chairman, has since become a supporter. He was one of the council members who supported a referendum during the failed vote in May, according to Fool Bear.

Some of the other races this week could bring fresh faces to the council. Incumbents didn't run in four of eight district races, and in another district race, the incumbent was eliminated.

Theoretically, if voters approved of the nickname referendum Sept. 30, a new council meeting Oct. 1 could throw its support behind the nickname, as well.

His Horse is Thunder had earlier noted that referendums are advisory in nature and councils are not obliged to go along with them.

There's no indication that the nickname was much of a factor in the primary, though, as may be expected. Fool Bear himself was knocked out of the running in the chairman race.

"We have politicians saying there are more important issues to handle," he said.

The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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