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By Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published March 24 2010

Lawyer: North Dakota board can drop Fighting Sioux nickname

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members have no right to block a possible change of the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname, an assistant attorney general told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The Board of Higher Education ultimately has the authority to change UND’s nickname “at any time, if it’s not contrary to the constitution, to a contract, or to state law,” Douglas Bahr said.

Bahr and Lolita Romanick, an attorney for eight Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members who want UND to keep its nickname, argued Tuesday about whether the board must wait until Nov. 30 to decide whether to drop the moniker, which many American Indians consider offensive.

“We are looking for an opportunity to speak during the time frame that we were allowed, to have the state Board of Higher Education seriously consider, value, honor and respect our input,” Romanick said.

The Supreme Court will rule on the case later. It agreed to an expedited schedule for hearing arguments after a district judge dismissed the lawsuit last December.

Romanick’s clients, who believe the nickname helps promote awareness of Sioux Indian culture, are seeking a court order that bars the higher education board from changing the nickname before Nov. 30.

The November deadline was set as part of a lawsuit settlement between UND and the NCAA, which considers the nickname and logo hostile to American Indians. An earlier decision would help UND’s efforts to join the Summit League athletics conference, which has been reluctant to consider the school as a member until the Fighting Sioux dispute is resolved.

Under the settlement’s terms, the university has until Nov. 30 to obtain approval from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes to continue using the Fighting Sioux name. If either tribe withheld its consent, the agreement said, UND would have to either change its nickname or abide by NCAA sanctions.

Bahr and Romanick agreed that the board is free to change UND’s nickname after Nov. 30. They clashed on the question of whether Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members were “third-party beneficiaries” of the UND-NCAA settlement and thus have authority to enforce the deadline.

“The general intention of this was to get the approval of the Sioux nations,” Romanick said. “If we’re going to now say that it means the state Board of Higher Education can decide to change (the Fighting Sioux) name at any time, then we’re destroying the whole purpose of the agreement.”

Bahr contended the tribes and their members have no legal standing to contest how the settlement plays out.

The eight Spirit Lake tribal members who filed the lawsuit pushed for a referendum on their northeastern North Dakota reservation last year, in which 67 percent of the voters said they backed the nickname. UND nickname backers on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation turned in petitions this week asking for a similar referendum on their reservation.

Bahr said that although the two tribes’ approval of the nickname is needed for UND to continue using it after Nov. 30 without penalty, the higher education board may drop the name even if the tribes support it.

“That is their constitutional authority,” Bahr said in response to a question from Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle. “Before the approval period, or after the approval period.”

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