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N.D. higher education board retires Fighting Sioux nickname and logo

MAYVILLE, N.D. -- In the end, the decision came with a shrug and a sigh.

The Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, cherished symbols of University of North Dakota athletic teams for nearly 80 years, must be consigned to history, the State Board of Higher Education ruled here Thursday.

The board directed Chancellor Bill Goetz to immediately advise UND President Robert Kelley by letter that the university should begin its transition away from the logo and nickname.

Kelley, who was at the meeting, said afterward that he plans to call the president of the Summit League today "and say that the board finally acted," clearing the way for UND's application for league membership.

UND officials called a news conference for this morning and posted on its Web site an initial piece of the planned transition: The university athletic teams will continue to be called the Sioux through the 2010-2011 school year while the school considers alternatives.

Board President Richie Smith brought up the logo issue at the end of an all-day meeting, noting that the North Dakota Supreme Court earlier Thursday had affirmed a district court ruling against logo supporters in the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe.

The board had voted in a May 2009 meeting in Dickinson, N.D., to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo starting Oct. 1, a deadline later extended to Nov. 30, unless the university could win approval and a 30-year commitment from the two namesake tribes.

Spirit Lake voters had OK'd continued use of the symbols in April 2009, but Standing Rock tribal officials have thus far refused to hold a referendum.

The tribes' approval was mandated by the settlement of a lawsuit UND brought against the NCAA, which considers Indian nicknames and logos abusive.

The hard-fought, four-year legal battle aroused great passions on bot h sides, and it was complicated by divisions within the tribes -- divisions which logo opponents cited as evidence of the nickname's negative impact on tribal life and, especially, Indian students at UND.

The wrangling came to a head in recent months as some logo supporters at Spirit Lake sought an injunction against the board dropping the nickname until arrangements could be made for a referendum or tribal council vote at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

A district court judge ruled against the logo supporters and threw out the injunction, and the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's action Thursday morning -- issuing its opinion about the time the State Board assembled in Mayville for its monthly meeting.

Some who have especially championed retention of the logo refused to accept the decision as final.

Jody Hodgson, general manager of logo-festooned Ralph Engelstad Arena, called the board's timing poor. He said Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Charles W. Murphy was scheduled to meet with the tribe's judicial committee next week to discuss a 1,000-signature petition filed by nickname supporters seeking to put the nickname issue to a vote.

A Standing Rock tribal referendum still is "an absolute possibility," Hodgson said. "What if they did that? What would the State Board do then? Would the State Board step up and honor the wishes of the tribes?"

B.J. Rainbow, a UND senior who has ties to the Lakota tribes in Spirit Lake and Standing Rock and opposes keeping the logo, attended Thursday's meeting to talk about Native American scholarship programs.

He said he stuck around, hoping to see the board act on the logo.

"I wish they'd move forward now that it's in their hands," he said.

"Time is on our side," Rainbow said. "The original (Nov. 30) deadline is coming. It definitely feels like change is coming."

Kelley said the board's action was not a surprise, and he's prepared to move on.

"It is a matter now of managing a transition," he said.

"I am happy to have a new set of problems to solve," he said. "This is going to be a new set of challenges, and it is going to be hard work for everybody."

Kelley said that people "all over the country are watching to see how we handle this," including thousands of UND alumni.

Noting that many alumni are passionate about the logo and nickname, he said they also have proven to be "very resilient." He hopes to include many of them in the transition process.

Kelley said he's looking forward to gaining Summit League membership, an important step in UND's transition to Division I athletics. He said he hopes that "puts us into the game no later than 2013."

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co., which also owns the Bemidji Pioneer.