FARGO, N.D. — Six American Indian students at the University of North Dakota filed a federal lawsuit Thursday asking to eliminate the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname, one day before state officials are scheduled to meet with NCAA officials about the moniker.
The complaint alleges that a new law requiring the school to keep the nickname violates the state constitution and reverses a court-ordered settlement between UND and the NCAA that retired the logo. The students want a court order directing the state Board of Higher education and UND to drop it for good.
“We want the legislation stricken,” said Carla Fredericks, a New York attorney and enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.
Some state leaders and UND President Robert Kelley are scheduled to meet with NCAA executives Friday in Indianapolis. Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson, of Fargo, questioned the timing of the lawsuit and said it represents a handful of people with out-of-state interests.
“You’ve got a New York attorney. It was nice of them to keep it local,” Carlson said. “We understand why it was done. It’s a small group. My job is to represent the majority of North Dakotans.
“I think there has been a lot of discussion already and tomorrow we are going to make the case why we think the Fighting Sioux nickname should be retained,” he said of Friday’s meeting.
Fredericks said the timing of the lawsuit is related to the fact that the settlement agreement dictated that the nickname be officially Monday, and not because of the meeting with NCAA officials.
“The meeting that is happening on Friday is because of the Monday deadline,” she said.
The suit names Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, the state of North Dakota, the higher education board and UND. State officials said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
The Legislature earlier this year passed a bill requiring UND to keep the nickname and logo even though the school had begun efforts to retire it. The NCAA said UND will face sanctions if it remains. The school will be barred from hosting NCAA postseason games and its teams will not be able to wear the nickname and logo on its uniforms in postseason contests.
The Big Sky Conference, which UND hopes to join next year, wants the issue resolved and said it could create problems with the school’s conference membership.
The students bringing the lawsuit are Amber Annis, Lisa Casarez, William Crawford, Sierra Davis, Robert Rainbow, Margaret Scott, Franklin Sage and Janie Schroeder. In addition to their complaints about the state law and settlement agreement, the suit alleges that the nickname has had “a profoundly negative impact” on their self-image and psychological health, and has deprived them “of an equal educational experience and environment.”
The debate over the Fighting Sioux nickname has lasted for decades. The present controversy began in 2006 when the NCAA placed UND on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames deemed “hostile and abusive.” UND sued the NCAA and the settlement agreement called for the school to retire the nickname on Aug. 15, 2011, if it did not get approval from the state’s two namesake tribes.
Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members endorsed the nickname and logo in a referendum, and the tribe’s governing council followed. The Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal council, which has long opposed the nickname, has declined to change its stand.
David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and a UND alumnus, calls the lawsuit long overdue.
“I believe that state officials have failed to live up to their responsibilities,” Gipp said. “By consistently minimizing and avoiding the realities of this case and ignoring those who describe the damage it creates in the higher education setting, they are continuing to cause great harm.”