Editorial: Fighting Sioux fight goes on

Published 8:29 am Monday, December 28, 2009

The dismissal of a frivolous lawsuit now clears the way for the State Board of Higher Education to put a dignified and decisive end to the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo. District Judge Michael Sturdevant came to the only conclusion possible under North Dakota law: The decision over the controversial nickname and logo rests solely with the higher education board.

The legal challenge, by a group of members of the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation, was destined to end in defeat. A settlement reached two years ago with the NCAA gave UND until Nov. 30, 2010, to win the support of Dakota and Lakota tribes in the state for the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo, or retire them. But nothing in the agreement barred deciding the issue before the deadline.

Sturdevant, who dawdled before reaching his inevitable conclusion, acceded to the obvious when he wrote that he could find nothing in the settlement with the NCAA requiring the board to keep the nickname. He also agreed with the state in ruling that the North Dakota Constitution clearly gives the board the authority to run state universities athletic team nicknames and logos included.

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The two tribes appear divided over the issue, with Spirit Lake supporting the nickname in a referendum earlier this year and the Standing Rock Tribal Council on record against it. The new Standing Rock chairman has shown no desire to revisit the divisive issue, which he said falls low on his priority list.

Meanwhile, UND wants to apply to join the Summit League, which wants the nickname issue settled before it considers the application. The higher education board should revisit the issue when it meets Jan. 21 in Grand Forks. Having vacillated in the past, board members should vote to retire the “Fighting Sioux,” and shift the attention to finding a new nickname and logo.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a UND alumnus and supporter of the nickname, placed the ball squarely where it belongs recently when he observed, “Like it or not, the board of higher education has the authority to regulate and oversee all the operations of the institutions of higher education, and that includes the determination of what nicknames and logos are appropriate.”

Two years ago, when the state reached a settlement with the NCAA over the issue, we observed in this space, “It’s history. University personnel, alumni, students and everyone else in the state should prepare to accept a new symbol/logo/nickname for the school’s athletic teams.”

The plaintiffs have said they plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Let them tilt at windmills, but don’t let a legal sideshow cause further delay. The higher education board must put this issue to an end, once and for all, and UND must move on.

— Fargo Forum, Dec. 23