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Published November 19, 2009, 10:58 PM

AG Seek Dismissal of Lawsuit Over UND Nickname

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem met with state Board of Higher Education members behind closed doors Thursday to update them on the state's response, which is expected to be filed by next week.

By: Dave Kolpack, AP

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's top prosecutor said the state will seek to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members who want the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem met with state Board of Higher Education members behind closed doors Thursday to update them on the state's response, which is expected to be filed by next week. A judge has barred the board from taking any action on the nickname issue until after a Dec. 9 hearing.

Stenehjem said the tribal members will have a hard time with that order, issued last week by Northeast District Judge Michael Sturdevant.

"They have to be able to show the judge they're going to win the lawsuit," he said. "I think that's a difficult standard."

The board has said it will retire the nickname unless the state's Sioux tribes sign 30-year agreements to support it. The board originally set an Oct. 1 deadline, but extended it to Nov. 30 because of tribal elections on the Standing Rock reservation.

Pat Morley, an attorney for the tribal members, said the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes should have until Nov. 30, 2010, to decide whether to support the nickname and logo.

The tribal members who filed the lawsuit "are sincere in their belief," Stenehjem said, noting that he respects that.

"But I also understand that more important than all of that is the constitutional principles that are at stake," Stenehjem said. "The board has the responsibility for making these kinds of decisions."

Stenehjem said the meeting with board members was productive, noting that three of the members are attorneys.

"They had some suggestions and advice to offer, which I appreciate," he said.

Board president Richie Smith, a Wahpeton attorney, said afterward that his group had no choice but to put the nickname issue on hold, even though UND is waiting for the outcome so it can work on scheduling sports competition. Some opponents are waiting for the issue to be resolved before deciding whether to play UND.

"We're at the judge's discretion," Smith said. "Whether we like it or not, that's immaterial."

The Spirit Lake tribe has voted overwhelmingly to support the nickname and approved a resolution giving UND "perpetual" permission to use it. Bill Goetz, the university system chancellor, said Thursday that the Standing Rock Tribal Council has not discussed the possibility of a reservation-wide vote on the issue.

Goetz, who met with Standing Rock tribal chairman Charles Murphy and his lawyers last week, said the nickname is not a priority and the Standing Rock council has a moratorium on a tribal vote. Goetz said the issue has caused arguments among Standing Rock family members, and Murphy is also worried about the treatment of Indian students at UND.

"We have an environment at Standing Rock that is very, very divisive," Goetz said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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