Ralph Engelstad was the central figure in the battle to retain the Fighting Sioux nickname at UND
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen wraps up the story of Ralph Engelstad, the namesake for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks' home arena.
Editor's note: This is the third and final installment in a series of stories from InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen about the life of Ralph Engelstad. Read Curt's first story on Engelstad's early days, then move on to learn more about how Engelstad financed the university's hockey arena.
GRAND FORKS — By 1998, Ralph Engelstad, a 1954 graduate of the University of North Dakota and a former hockey player for the Sioux, was one of the wealthiest people ever to graduate from a college in North Dakota. Engelstad was the owner of the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and the Imperial Palace Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi. His 2,637-room hotel in Las Vegas was the second largest privately owned hotel in the world.
For 30 years, Engelstad remained a prominent Sioux hockey booster and, on Dec. 17, 1998, he announced that he was donating a $100 million gift for a new hockey arena at UND. At the time it was considered the largest monetary donation by any single individual towards an institutional project in North Dakota.
After the groundbreaking in November of 1999, Engelstad is said to have oversaw every detail of the construction project, which included 2,500 workers. However, midway into its construction Engelstad threatened to withdraw funding if the university dropped the longstanding Fighting Sioux nickname.
The push to change the nickname came about in 2000 because 21 Native American-related programs, departments, and organizations at UND signed a statement opposing the continued use of the nickname and logo, saying that it did not honor them (the Sioux Indians) or their culture.
Engelstad took great pride in being a former Fighting Sioux member at UND. It was a part of his identity. He wrote, “Tradition is the gentle fabric woven through time and experience which generates meaning, character, and identity to one and all. The Fighting Sioux logo, the Fighting Sioux uniforms, the aura of the Fighting Sioux tradition, and the spirit of being a Fighting Sioux are of lasting value and immeasurable significance to our past, presence, and future.” As a result, Engelstad announced that he would cease construction on the arena if UND discontinued the Fighting Sioux nickname. If the nickname was so objectionable, how did UND come about using it in the first place?
UND first became active in intercollegiate sports in the 1890s and they chose Flickertails as their mascot/nickname. Flickertails are cute ground squirrels that are abundant in western North Dakota. There was no problem with this until after 1922 when Stan Borleske, the head football coach of the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University, changed the nickname of his team from the Aggies to the Bison. UND had a major sports rivalry with NDAC and when the press announced the match-up between the Bison and the Flickertails, UND supporters often found themselves in a defensive position. Bison were the king animals of the Dakota plains, and the flickertails, although cute, always fled from confrontations and burrowed themselves in the ground. Symbolically, the flickertails were no match for the fearsome bison.
In response, UND unofficially changed their team nickname to the Sioux in 1930. The Sioux were mighty hunters of northern Dakota Territory and the primary game animals on their hunts were the bison. Later, the word “fighting” was attached to Sioux as the UND sports’ nickname and this changed the concept from hunter to warrior. It was common for sports teams at all levels to use feared warriors as their nicknames (i.e., Spartans, Trojans, Vikings, and even Warriors).
Beginning in 1969, many Native Americans began to publicly, and in an organized manner, express several of their grievances, one of which was by what names they were called. First off, many objected to being called Indians. That was the name attributed to them by Christopher Columbus because he thought he had landed in India. Collectively, they preferred to be called Native Americans or Indigenous Americans. The consensus is that, whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name or the name of their clan. That meant they wanted to be known by the name they had for their tribe, not the name given to them by someone else. The name Sioux is derived from a Chippewa word which means snake or enemy. Members of the tribe generally called themselves Lakota or Dakota, meaning friends, allies, or to be friendly. What is ironic is that also in 1969, the Lakota at the Standing Rock Reservation gave UND President George Starcher authorization to use the Sioux name.
In 2001 the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education voted 8 to 0 to keep the nickname and Indian logo. Construction of the Ralph Engelstad Arena was completed later that year. It was considered “the Taj Mahal of hockey,” the best college hockey arena in the world. To many people, the battle over UND’s sports nickname appeared to be over, but that all changed in 2005 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled that UND and 11 other schools could be sanctioned if they used American Indian nicknames and images that were deemed hostile or abusive.
The NCAA ruled that UND could avoid the sanctions and retain the Sioux nickname and logo if the majority of the Lakota reservations in North Dakota approved of UND's request to retain the nickname and logo. In 2009, the Spirit Lake Tribal Council voted to continue allowing the use of the Sioux nickname, but in 2010, the Standing Rock Tribal Council voted 10-4 in opposition. On June 11, 2012, “North Dakota voters chose to retire the Fighting Sioux name and the American Indian logo. Ralph Engelstad did not live to see all this happen. He died of lung cancer at his home in Las Vegas Nov. 26, 2002.
However, the Engelstad legacy remains very evident at UND. Besides the Ralph Engelstad arena there is the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for basketball, volleyball and soccer, which was constructed in 2004 and financed by an $8 million donation from the Engelstad Foundation. The foundation also provided $20 million in 2007 for student scholarships and departmental chairs at UND in the names of Ralph and Betty Engelstad.
Ralph Engelstad and his foundation also donated millions of dollars for at-risk individuals, education, historical preservation, animal compassion, medical research and support, people with disabilities, veterans, high school hockey facilities, the Boy Scouts, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the performing arts.
Few people have been recognized for their contributions and accomplishments in as many different areas as Engelstad. He has received numerous awards including the Sioux Award from the UND Alumni Association in 1981, the highest honor granted by UND. In 1987, he was inducted into the Fighting Sioux Hall of Fame. In 1987 and again in 1989 Engelstad and the Imperial Palace were named Employer of the Year by the Nevada Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities. In 1991, Engelstad and the Imperial Palace were named National Employer of the Year by President George H.W. Bush’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Also in 1991, he received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the International Gaming and Business Exposition. In 2002 Engelstad was inducted into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame for his contributions to the construction of casino and entertainment industries. Also, in that year, the UND hockey team retired uniform #23, his former UND jersey number.
Ralph Engelstad was truly unique. One of his qualities was to generously reward those institutions that helped him become successful. UND is grateful that he considered the university to be one of those institutions.