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Judge throws out Fighting Sioux nickname lawsuit

FARGO, N.D. (AP) – A district judge has thrown out a lawsuit by a group of Spirit Lake tribal members who want the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname, leaving the moniker’s future in the hands of the state Board of Higher Education.

Board president Richie Smith said the board should decide in January whether to officially retire the nickname and the school’s Indian head logo, which the NCAA considers hostile and abusive. He expects the board will meet Jan. 21 in Grand Forks.

The Spirit Lake group filed the lawsuit in hopes that the board would wait until Nov. 30, 2010, to make its decision. The date was included in a state lawsuit settlement against the NCAA that has allowed UND to temporarily keep the nickname.

Smith said the Dec. 18 ruling by Northeast District Judge Michael Sturdevant was the right decision.

“There were greater issues in the lawsuit than just the name and logo,” Smith said. “It challenged the authority of the board to run the schools. It would have established a terrible precedent.”

Pat Morley, a Grand Forks attorney for the tribal members, did not respond Dec. 18 to a telephone message seeking comment. The group called itself the Committee for Understanding and Respect.

Sturdevant, a graduate of UND’s law school, criticized the board in his 10-page ruling for its failure to “seize upon the opportunity to preserve an honored tradition.” Documents filed in the case “indicate a disingenuous change of heart that is perplexing,” the judge wrote.

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“However, as the board has persistently declared, it does have a constitutional right to set its own course of action, and it may well be time to accept that truism,” Sturdevant said.

Jody Hodgson, the general manager of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the UND hockey arena financed and named for a wealthy UND benefactor and staunch nickname supporter, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling.

“I was much happier for the first nine pages than I was the last two paragraphs,” Hodgson said. “I’m hopeful that there’s still an opportunity to discuss retaining the name and logo.”

The board voted in May to retire the nickname and logo unless it received 30-year agreements from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes for its use. Board member then agreed to delay a decision to accommodate elections on the Standing Rock reservation in south-central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota.

In the vote, Charles Murphy defeated incumbent Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a vocal nickname opponent. But Murphy has said since then that the nickname issue is not a priority for the tribe.

Some board members have said they shouldn’t wait long to drop UND’s nickname because it has hurt the school’s transition to NCAA Division I athletics. The Summit League, which UND wishes to join, said it won’t consider the school for admission and some schools have said they won’t schedule UND until the nickname issue is resolved.

“Personally, I think that this name and logo is holding the school back from doing bigger and better things,” Smith said. “Wherever I travel, wherever I go, this is the only issue people want to talk about. They don’t want to talk about the med school, the law school, the aerospace school and all the good things that are happening at UND.”

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