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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 07 2012

UND American Indian students will not appeal nickname lawsuit dismissal; say they will extend an olive branch

GRAND FORKS - Six American Indian students at UND who sued the university and several state officials over use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo have decided not to appeal a U.S. District Court judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

They also say they want to “extend an olive branch” to those who fought to keep the nickname.

Carla Fredericks, a New York attorney who represented the students, said the June 12 primary vote to allow UND to retire the name “meant that most of the legal claims in the complaint were rendered untenable, because the election result had mooted any remaining controversy.”

While there remains “a legal basis for appeal,” she said, the students “feel that the lawsuit objective to end the name and logo was met.”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S District Court on Aug. 11, 2011, by the six students, who alleged violations of state and federal civil rights laws. They named the state and its top officers, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, as defendants, along with UND and the State Board of Higher Education.

In his decision dismissing the suit last month, District Judge Ralph Erickson said the overwhelming primary election vote authorizing retirement of the nickname “would appear to have finally ended any meaningful opposition” to that historic action.

“While some last gasps of further political action are still echoing across the state, it appears that as a political issue, the ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname and logo dispute has been resolved and the position consigned to the dust heap of history.”

Nickname supporters at the Spirit Lake Nation, undeterred by the primary election setback, continue to collect signatures for an initiated measure to put the Fighting Sioux nickname in the state Constitution. If sufficient signatures are collected and filed with the state, that vote likely would be in June 2014.

The Spirit Lake Committee for Understanding and Respect also continues its fight on another front, appealing Erickson’s dismissal of its lawsuit against the NCAA. That appeal is pending before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a statement released through Fredericks, the UND students who sued to eliminate the nickname said they did so “to stand up for our basic human rights as Indigenous people.”

The decision to sue brought “a tremendous personal burden and challenge, to stand up to the state of North Dakota and its institutions to demand that Native people would no longer be used or seen as stereotypical objects for their sport teams,” they said.

“We are contemporary Native people with rich cultures and will no longer be the mute depictions of the past that the ‘Fighting Sioux’ nickname and logo portrayed us as. We chose to seek relief in the courts in part because our voice and experiences have been diminished in public discourse on the issue.”

They said their lawsuit was filed on behalf of “all the Native students who came before them and all those who would continue to come after them.

For 43 years, they said, Indian people have been telling UND and the larger community that they are not honored by use of the nickname.

“We extend an olive branch to all those who opposed the removal of the nickname and logo. We ask you to open up your hearts and minds. The campus and surrounding community will continue to be a tense environment for all, especially considering the divisiveness of the issue. We are hopeful the University of North Dakota will dialogue with us on these issues, and we hope that through this dialogue healing and unity will prevail in the University community.”

Stenhjem said he was pleased that the students decided not to appeal.

“One of the things we found most objectionable in their lawsuit was their allegation that the university and the state were aware of discrimination (due to the nickname) and indifferent to it,” he said.

“We take our responsibility ... to take allegations of discrimination very seriously. One of the keys to our settlement with the NCAA was that they withdraw their statement that the use of the nickname was ‘harmful and abusive’ to American Indians.”