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October 17, 2019

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Engelstad vowed to pull arena funding if controversial Indian name dropped

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Casino owner Ralph Engelstad, who is building an $85 million hockey arena for the University of North Dakota, said in a blunt letter to the school's president that he would abandon the project if UND dropped its "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

The day after the wealthy casino owner and real estate developer sent his letter, the state Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 to keep the nickname and a newly designed logo. It is a profile of an American Indian with feathers and war paint.

Engelstad owns the Imperial Palace hotel-casinos in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss.

"Please do not consider this letter a threat in any manner, as it is not intended to be," Engelstad wrote to UND President Charles Kupchella. "It is only notification to you of exactly what I am going to do if you change this logo and this slogan."

Both the nickname and logo have drawn heated objections from American Indian students and tribal officials, who consider them offensive. The "Fighting Sioux" label has been debated regularly on campus since the 1970s.

If the nickname and logo were dropped, Engelstad's letter said, he would halt construction of the hockey arena, cut off its heat, absorb more than $35 million in expenses and allow the building to deteriorate.

"I am sure that nature, through its cold weather, will completely destroy any portion of this building through frost that you might be able to salvage," Engelstad wrote.

"I surely hoped that it would never come to this, but I guess it has," Engelstad continued. "It is a good thing that you (Kupchella) are an educator, because you are a man of indecision, and if you were a businessman, you would not succeed. You would be broke immediately."

Engelstad said UND's hockey coach, Dean Blais, told him he was so exasperated by the dispute that he might resign if the "Fighting Sioux" name were dropped. Blais could not be reached Sunday for comment.

Copies of the three-page letter, dated Dec. 20, were also sent to Board of Higher Education members. It was obtained by the Associated Press as part of a records request for board members' correspondence about the nickname dispute.

Board members did not mention the letter during their Dec. 21 vote to keep the nickname and logo. Engelstad, in his letter, had demanded a decision by Dec. 29.

One board member, John T. Korsmo of Fargo, said he did not see the letter until two weeks afterward. Korsmo said Sunday that Engelstad's remarks angered him so much that he would have been tempted to support dropping the nickname and logo.

Engelstad describing Kupchella as "a man of indecision" was "such an offensive comment to me, and so out of line to have that comment made ... I'm just dumbfounded," Korsmo said.

"What does the guy really care about?" Korsmo asked. "Does he really care about the University of North Dakota as an educational institution, or does he care about it as a hockey team?"

Board members said they were juggling a number of factors in making their decision.

Letters, electronic mail messages and telephone calls to board members ran heavily in favor of keeping the "Fighting Sioux" name.

The dispute has generated considerable interest from legislators as well.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, requested an attorney general's opinion about the issue, and Rep. Frank Wald, R-Dickinson, said he was bothered by the "foot-dragging on the 'Fighting Sioux' issue at UND."

"I would hate to see the leadership at UND and the board be embarrassed, should it become necessary for the Legislature to resolve the issue this coming session," Wald said.

Wald is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will help to write the North Dakota university system's two-year budget during the 2001 session, which began Jan. 9. Grindberg is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Larry Isaak, chancellor of the state university system, said he had expected before the Dec. 21 board meeting that one member, whom he would not name, would make a motion to keep the nickname and logo.

"I think you have to acknowledge that a letter such as one from Ralph has impact, but I would say that the discussion ... had already been ongoing by the time Ralph's letter was received," Isaak said Sunday.

William Isaacson, president of the Board of Higher Education, could not be reached for comment. Craig Caspers, the board's vice president, said he did not read the letter before the meeting, but was informed of its contents.

"I was certainly concerned about the financial impact, not only Mr. Engelstad, but other alumni on this issue," Caspers said.

The hockey arena is part of a $100 million pledge Engelstad made to the university two years ago.

Engelstad is a UND alumnus and former goaltender on the school's hockey team in the early 1950s.

Engelstad has been closely involved in the arena's planning, design and construction. For tax reasons, he is financing the arena himself, and has said he plans to donate it to the university later. He could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The arena, which is designed to seat 11,400 fans and have 48 luxury suites, is scheduled for completion later this year. Its first hockey game is Oct. 5, against the University of Minnesota.

If Kupchella did not decide the nickname and logo question by Dec. 29, Engelstad promised to cancel the arena's construction contracts the following day, and arrange to pay subcontractors, advertising buyers, and ticket holders.

"I will refund money to all ticket holders and abandon the project," he wrote. "It would then be left up to you if you want to complete it, with money from wherever you may be able to find it."

Engelstad's letter also hints that, before his $100 million pledge was announced in December 1998, he was given assurances that the "Fighting Sioux" nickname would stay, and a new team logo designed. University officials have denied making any such promises.

The new logo was unveiled almost a year after Engelstad made his pledge. It is similar to the team symbol of the National Hockey League's Chicago Blackhawks.

"Commitments were made to me by others and yourself," Engelstad wrote in his letter, "regarding the Sioux logo and the Sioux slogan before I started the arena, and after it has been started.

"These promises have not been kept, and I, as a businessman, cannot proceed while this cloud is still hanging above me," Engelstad said.

Kupchella was hired as UND's president in April 1999, four months after Engelstad made his $100 million pledge.

He quickly became immersed in UND's ongoing argument about the "Fighting Sioux" nickname. Last February, Kupchella appointed a special commission, which included former North Dakota governors Allen Olson and George Sinner, to study the issue.

Kupchella had intended to make the decision late last year. In electronic mail messages to board members, he said he was leaning toward an eventual nickname change.

Kupchella was "prepared to outline steps whereby we would cease using the nickname after a period of several years, using the logos in the meantime," he said in a Dec. 16 electronic mail message to Isaacson, the board's president.

"I see no choice but to respect the request by Sioux tribes that we quit using their name," Kupchella wrote in the message. "To do otherwise would pit the university and its president in an untenable position."