Engelstad Officials Deny Nickname Lawsuit

The Ralph Engelstad Arena has no role in a lawsuit filed by eight Spirit Lake Sioux tribal members that supports the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo, the arena’s general manager says.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court in Devils Lake, seeks to delay any decision by North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education on whether to discard the nickname and logo. A judge scheduled arguments for Dec. 9, but said the board may request an earlier hearing if it chooses.

The $104 million Grand Forks arena was financed by a passionate supporter of the nickname and prominently features the name and logo, a profile of a Sioux warrior. Both are the focus of an ongoing dispute between the university and the NCAA, which considers them hostile to American Indians.

But Jody Hodgson, the arena’s general manager, said Tuesday that the facility is not financing the lawsuit. Grand Forks attorney Patrick Morley, who represents the Spirit Lake tribal members in the lawsuit, agreed.

“They are not paying me and they are not my client,” Morley said of arena officials. He is working for the Spirit Lake tribal members for a reduced fee, and “I am not accepting a cent from anybody but them,” Morley said.

Morley has done legal work for the arena, and he said that fact has prompted questions about who was paying his bill in the Spirit Lake case. “For some people, that’s the elephant in the room,” he said.

The tribal members, who formed a pro-nickname group called the Committee for Understanding and Respect, circulated petitions to put the issue to a vote on the Spirit Lake reservation last spring. Sixty-seven percent of the voters supported the nickname and logo and the tribe’s governing council later approved a resolution giving UND “perpetual” use of both.

The lawsuit says the tribal members are honored by the nickname and logo.

“The plaintiffs …. strongly believe to lose this identification with North Dakota’s oldest institution of higher education will cause isolation and a diminishing of public interest, knowledge and respect for the Sioux history and culture, and will be detrimental and not in the best interests of their people,” the lawsuit says.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena, which opened in October 2001, is named for a UND alumnus, benefactor and former goaltender on the school’s hockey team who became wealthy as a property developer and casino owner. Engelstad donated $100 million to finance the arena’s construction, and told the Board of Higher Education he would withdraw support if the nickname were changed. He died in November 2002.

The NCAA four year years ago declared the nickname and logo hostile and abusive to American Indians, and said continued use would deny UND the chance to host postseason tournaments.

The university sued. UND agreed in an October 2007 settlement to drop the logo and nickname after Nov. 30, 2010, if the school could not get approval from the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes to use them.

The Standing Rock Sioux’s governing council has opposed the nickname and logo, although the tribe’s newly elected chairman, Charles Murphy, has said the issue could be revisited. The tribe has never held a referendum on it.

The Board of Higher Education has been considering whether to drop the logo and nickname before the Nov. 30, 2010, deadline. The Spirit Lake tribal members’ lawsuit contends the board is required to wait until the deadline passes before making a decision.