FARGO, N.D. — A judge has thrown out a federal lawsuit by a committee of tribal members trying to save the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname, an issue that has been debated on several fronts since the NCAA in 2005 declared the moniker hostile and abusive.
The suit was filed against the NCAA by several members of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe and one member of the Standing Rock Sioux. It asked for at least $10 million and a reversal of the NCAA policy banning the use of American Indian imagery in post-season competition.
The NCAA filed a motion in December to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the tribes lacked standing to bring it and their claims that the tribes’ civil and religious rights were violated are not supported by facts. A federal judge ruled late Tuesday in favor of the governing body of college athletics.
Reed Soderstrom, the tribal committee’s lawyer, said he planned to meet with other attorneys to see if there’s a “crack in the door” for an appeal.
“It has been a rough day, but there were no guarantees,” Soderstrom said.
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said in a statement that the court made the right decision and “agreed that the plaintiffs had no viable claims, their rights were not violated and the NCAA’s championships policies are lawful.”
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson, a graduate of the UND law school, began his written explanation by summarizing the firestorm that has divided supporters of the Grand Forks university.
“Spanning a spectrum of protests for and against the name, tribal resolutions, state laws and fierce public debate, the NCAA’s championship policy has created significant turmoil with the state of North Dakota over the propriety and continued use of the Fighting Sioux nickname,” Erickson wrote.
The fight began when the NCAA told 19 schools to get rid of American Indian nicknames or risk sanctions. Some of the schools got permission from namesake tribes and were allowed to keep the nickname. UND received approval from Spirit Lake, but Standing Rock refused to hold a vote on the issue.
The North Dakota Legislature opted to take on the NCAA, passing a bill in early 2011 requiring UND to use the nickname and Indian head logo. The law was repealed eight months later after NCAA officials told state representatives it would not budge on penalties.
A citizen’s group then gathered signatures to put the issue to a statewide vote in June. The state Supreme Court refused to block that election when asked to rule on whether the law is constitutional.
Legal bills obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press show the legal fight over the nickname vote has cost taxpayers more than $46,000 in lawyers’ fees.
“I still think there are some more peaks and valleys ahead between the ballot measures and everything that is going on,” Soderstrom said. “The people get to decide, and that’s the beauty of this whole thing.”
In his ruling on the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock committee’s lawsuit, Erickson noted the NCAA is a private association free to govern its members as it sees fit. Many of the committee’s arguments, he said, were “entirely without merit, and the ones that could potentially have been meritorious could only have properly been brought by UND.”
Even if the school brought action, Erickson said, it would be an iffy proposition.
The Spirit Lake reservation is located entirely within the state of North Dakota, whereas the Standing Rock reservation straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota, with its tribal headquarters in Fort Yates, N.D. Some nickname supporters have argued Standing Rock’s interest in the issue is tempered because many members live in South Dakota.
Soderstrom acknowledged his group “hung our hats” on a 1969 pipe ceremony held on the UND campus when a delegation from Standing Rock and at least one representative from Spirit Lake reportedly bestowed to the university permanent rights to use the nickname.
Erickson rejected the committee’s argument that the NCAA was violating that contract.
“While the court respects the sanctity and solemnity that tribal traditions richly deserve, the 1969 pipe ceremony has no legal significance on the facts as pled by the committee,” Erickson said.