It’s time for North Dakota to do the right thing

william's picture

           The Nickname Vote, now in its second stage with a third on the horizon, continues to inspire befuddlement. How could such a great institution like UND engage in such a farce? And now the latest – reports say that people are actually attempting to sell their votes! Shades of Chicago! As a UND graduate, I’m appalled!

            We all know the story. The NCAA declared that the Fighting Sioux name was hostile and abusive and had to go. The North Dakota attorney general’s office, on behalf of UND, filed suit against the NCAA and settled with a condition that agreement be reached with both the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux to allow the Fighting Sioux name to remain as the nickname for the University. This despite the fact that in 1969, both tribes gave the right to use the name in a “Sacred Pipe Ceremony”. Further, the NCAA, in a slap at North Dakota, allowed Florida State University to keep using the Seminole name with only the agreement of the Florida Seminole tribe. The Oklahoma Seminoles were disregarded.

            For three years now, UND has been playing sports as just North Dakota or UND. Controversy died down. That is, until, the president of UND, Robert Kelley, arbitrarily determined that it would be best to remove UND/North Dakota as an option to be voted on in the so-called “Nickname Vote”.

That decision was the primary impetus for plaintiffs Lavonne Alberts, Rich Becker and Bill Le Caine to file suit against the University of North Dakota. They intended to stop the madness of the Nickname Vote, which left out UND/North Dakota as a nickname option despite popular demand, and limited who was included as a UND “stakeholder”, with stakeholders being those who could vote for a new nickname.

But there was a roadblock that wasn’t expected. UND, represented by the attorney general’s office, claimed the vote really didn’t mean anything! They went on to tell the judge in the temporary restraining order hearing that in fact, the vote was just a “feeling out process”. The judge denied the temporary restraining order.

This “feeling out process” has, by UND’s own admission, cost the university somewhere around $300,000 when there is a reported five million dollar budget shortfall. And with participation around 25% and now votes being sold, isn’t it time for UND to simply say “we made a mistake”? 

            It’s apparent that UND president Robert Kelley wants to erase the last vestiges of the Fighting Sioux name as one of his final acts before he retires. But does North Dakota really want Mr. Kelley to serve as the unelected nickname czar? One of the primary arguments made in the lawsuit was that only the legislature has the authority to change the nickname of UND. It’s not too late for the legislature to step in and use its authority to stop a shunned, corrupted vote that is not only widely disliked, but is denigrating the prestige of the flagship university of the state.

It’s certainly evident that Mr. Kelly believes he is a nickname czar. He’s unilaterally changed the rules throughout the process. Let’s remove the UND/North Dakota voting option. Let’s add Nodaks in the runoff even though the runoff was supposed to only have 2 candidates. Let’s have a third runoff. Let’s limit the stakeholder group. 

Mr. Kelly and his administration preach “inclusion”. But he left the Sioux out of the stakeholder group even though donors to the University are a key component to the stakeholder group. The Sioux gave their name to UND and they’re not considered donors?

            In its lawsuit against the NCAA, UND stated that the University “received permission to use the Fighting Sioux name from the Sioux…. and that the name and logo are valuable commercial property.”

The University of North Dakota still has a chance to do the right thing. It claims to retain the rights to use the Fighting Sioux name and logo. Why not return those rights to the Sioux themselves to use for their benefit? UND claims that the name and logo are valuable commercial property; why let that be squandered?

And as far as the embarrassing Nickname Vote, let’s pull the plug. Let’s all take a deep breath and reevaluate together who should be in the stakeholder group. The Sioux should certainly be added. And any nickname vote should absolutely include the option of UND/North Dakota. That’s just North Dakota common sense.


William J. Brotherton (UND-1980) is the principal of the Brotherton Law Firm, a Texas civil litigation firm, and served as lead counsel in Alberts et al vs. University of North Dakota et al. He is a member of the Missisquoi Abenaki of Vermont, and the author of Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose.