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Judge throws tribes' lawsuit on Sioux nickname out of court

The attorney who argued the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe's case against the NCAA in federal court said he is "obviously disappointed by the result" but vows to carry on the fight to preserve UND's Fighting Sioux nickname.

"We've gone forward the best way we know how and the final decision rests with the people of North Dakota," Reed Soderstrom said, referring to the June 12 referendum on the name. "That's the way it needs to be."

Soderstrom said he wants to "talk with some people I trust and see if there's any door open slightly for appeal" to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the next step in the federal court system.

"I don't want to appeal and I won't appeal just for the sake of appealing," he said.

Soderstrom, who is in Arizona on family matters, said he had not yet read the judge's decision to dismiss his lawsuit of the tribe's Committee for Understanding and Respect against the NCAA. But he said he understood the gist from an early news account.

"I got my butt kicked," he said.

Judge Ralph Erickson filed the decision late Tuesday saying none of the several counts brought by the committee state a sufficient legal claim under federal law. Some of counts the counts might have had merit, but they could only have been brought by UND.

'Modest' sanctions

Still Soderstrom said he took solace from some of Erickson's remarks, including the judge's characterization of NCAA sanctions against UND as "limited and modest," which nickname supporters have long claimed.

That's in contrast to assertions by UND officials and others who seek to retire the nickname, who have warned that the sanctions could severely damage the university's athletics program. Leaders of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation emphasized the perceived threat Tuesday as they held news conferences to declare they will take the lead in seeking a "yes" vote on a nickname question in the June 12 primary, which would allow UND to retire the name.

Soderstrom said he recalled Erickson commenting on the "modest" sanctions during oral arguments on April 19. "You could tell he was well versed."

Erik Christianson, a spokesman for the NCAA, said the U.S. District Court "made the right decision in granting the NCAA's motion to dismiss."

He said the court "agreed that the plaintiffs had no viable claims, their rights were not violated and the NCAA's championships policies are lawful."

1969 ceremony

Soderstrom said he continues to believe that the 1969 pipe ceremony at UND "was binding," a solemn contract that should supersede the NCAA's 2005 policy concerning use of American Indian names and imagery and the 2007 settlement agreement between UND and the NCAA.

In his opinion, Erickson held that the Spirit Lake Sioux lack standing to sue the NCAA, the 1969 ceremony did not constitute a legal contract, and they had failed to show valid claims against the NCAA for violation of civil, religious or contract rights.

"We hung our hat on that ceremony and threw everything but the kitchen sink in after it knowing that some of that would be dismissed," Soderstrom said.

Rough road ahead

He said he and other nickname supporters will turn their attention back to the June 12 primary election and Measure 4, which if passed would allow UND to retire the nickname.

"It will be tough to compete with a quarter-million dollars," he said, referring to the estimate UND Alumni Association CEO Tim O'Keefe provided Tuesday on what the association might raise and spend to promote a "yes" vote.

"I think we have more than a fighting chance" to prevail in the referendum, Soderstrom said. But "it would have been a really nice springboard toward the vote if we had won at the federal level. Now we're up against UND's data base of contacts and that quarter-million dollars. That's definitely going to have an impact."

But Soderstrom said many North Dakotans "are sick of outsiders like the NCAA telling us what to do," and "it's always the right thing to stand up to a bully."

Disappointed by the federal court decision, he said "there will be peaks and valleys ahead" as the fight to preserve the Fighting Sioux nickname continues.

"But justice is a process," Soderstrom said, "and that's what I think we're going to have on June 12, win, lose or draw. The people will get to vote."

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.