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Published November 09, 2009, 10:52 PM

Judge orders state Board of Higher Education to delay nickname decision

GRAND FORKS - The State Board of Higher Education has been told by a district judge that it may not retire UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname until a hearing Dec. 9.

By: Tu-Uyen Tran, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS - The State Board of Higher Education has been told by a district judge that it may not retire UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname until a hearing Dec. 9.

The temporary restraining order, dated Monday, came from Judge Michael G. Sturdevant of Bottineau, N.D., as part of a lawsuit against the board brought forward by the Committee For Understanding and Respect, a group of Spirit Lake nation nickname supporters.

The group’s spokeswoman, Eunice Davidson, said 67 percent of the voters on her reservation agreed to keep the name in a voter earlier this year and felt the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe should be given an opportunity to do the same.

The complaint that sets off the lawsuit argues that the tribes are the owners of the nickname and the state board is merely a trustee, and, therefore, can’t decide to end use of the nickname on its own.

Word of the lawsuit reached the Herald late Monday night and there wasn’t an opportunity to show any state board member the relevant documents.

Tribes in charge

The complaint that sets off the lawsuit takes issue with the way the state board unilaterally changed the deadline, contrary to a settlement between the state and the NCAA.

The NCAA considers American Indian nicknames offensive and the settlement gives UND until Nov. 30, 2010, to win the support of both the state’s Sioux tribes.

But the state board moved the deadline forward to Oct. 31 of this year. If the Standing Rock chairman doesn’t state his intent to move forward with a referendum at the reservation, it appeared the board could direct UND to retire the nickname at its Nov. 19 meeting.

In doing so, the board would be ignoring the rights of the Sioux people, as stated in the NCAA settlement, according to the complaint.

The NCAA settlement says the Sioux tribes “have important contributions in determining whether, to what extent and in what manner the ‘Sioux’ name and the ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname or logo should continue to be used.”

The complaint interprets that to mean that “the SBHE has become the ‘trustee’ of the nickname and logo for the Sioux People of North Dakota.” In other words, the tribes own the nickname and the state board is only holding on to it until the tribes can decide what to do with the nickname.

Pat Morley, the nickname supporters’ attorney, said he considers the NCAA settlement a contract made for the benefit of the Sioux people. In legal parlance, that makes them a "third party beneficiary," having standing to file the lawsuit, he said.

Nickname supporters said in the complaint that “the plaintiffs are bringing this action because they strongly believe to lose… this identification with North Dakota’s oldest institution of higher education will cause isolation and diminishing of public interest, knowledge and respect for Sioux history and culture and will be detrimental and not in the best interest of their people.”

The complaint said they’re not seeking monetary damages.

Nickname supporters also said the 30-year agreement for use of the nickname the state board wants from each tribe is not in the NCAA settlement. They’re asking the court to order the board to back off that requirement.

In other news

In the meantime, as the state board’s deadline approaches, Chancellor Bill Goetz has sent a letter to Standing Rock Chairman Charles W. Murphy seeking a meeting with him to talk about the nickname.

When the letter was sent out Friday, the state board was still working under the assumption that it needed a statement of intent from Murphy that he would try to hold a nickname referendum on the reservation. Without that, the board would’ve been bound by its own stated deadline to ask UND to retire the nickname.

The Tribal Council met Monday and will meet again today, but Murphy told the Herald there has been no discussion of the nickname and he doesn't know that there will be any this week. He noted that he'd already written a letter to the state board about the matter and hasn't heard back.

Asked if he needed to hear back before he'd broach the subject with the council, he replied that that was the case.

State Board member Grant Shaft said Goetz’ letter may not have reached Murphy's desk yet.

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