Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

by Itancan'Win Itazipco/Mniconjou (Lakota)
from Native Directions Spring Y2K Volume 7 Issue 2


In no time at all the University of North Dakota will have a spanking new Hockey Arena. Now, I know what you are thinking, "How did we ever get so lucky?" Well folks, we have none other than the well-to-do UND alum, Mr. Ralph Engelstad, to thank for it. You may ask yourself, "Now, what have we done as a University to deserve such a wonderful gift?" Well kids I can tell you this, we didn't receive this gift because of our intellectual abilities-- no-siree-bob-- we got this gift because some of us can skate with a big stick in our hands really well. Lucky, lucky us!

Well, if you are anything like me, then you are immensely curious about our 100 million dollar man. Engelstad was born in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. He attended the University of North Dakota from 1948 until he graduated in 1954 (even back then it took 6 years to graduate—some things never change). From 1948 to 1950 he was a goalie for the UND hockey team. He's been married since 1954 to an East Grand Forks native, Betty (Stocker). They have a daughter, Kris. Engelstad is successful in the Las Vegas casino (Imperial Palace) and construction business. In fact, Forbes magazine puts his net worth at more than $400 million. Engelstad owns a collection of 700 antique and classic cars valued at somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million, as well as an estate in the Cayman Islands. In other words, folks, the man is loaded!

Executive Vice President of the University's Alumni Association, Earl Strinden, claims that Engelstad's gift is one of the largest private gifts ever granted to a university in the United States. He also says this gift comes to us unconditionally. But there have been persistent rumors circulating in this community since the announcement of Engelstad's gift. One local sports writer repeated, in a August 1998 column, what he called, "The hottest rumor in Grand Forks." The rumor goes like this... Engelstad promises to give UND $100 million if three conditions are met: 1) UND's athletic director leaves; 2) Baker leaves; 3) the Blackhawk logo is resurrected and put back on to the front of the hockey uniforms.

That was in 1998. Let's see what has happened since those "rumors" surfaced. UND's athletic director--that would be Terry "Former UND Athletic Director" Wanless--resigned. Oops, UND's President--that would be Kendell "Former UND President" Baker--resigned. And finally--a drum roll please--in the fall of 1999 a "new" Indian head logo was introduced. And I'll be dog-gone if it doesn't look a lot like the old Blackhawk logo that our talented hockey players used to wear on the front of their jerseys.

Somehow those rumors don't seem too much like rumors anymore; they seem more like truths.

The University of North Dakota has a history of actively supporting Engelstad. He is the recipient of UND's prestigious "Sioux Award" and was inducted into the "Fighting Sioux Hall of Fame" in 1987--the same year he committed $5 million to an endowment fund.

Perhaps the university's biggest supportive gesture came following two parties Engelstad hosted for employees and other guests at his Las Vegas casino. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were themes for those festivities. Decorations included a painting of Engelstad in a Nazi uniform; t-shirts with Hitler's picture and the caption "Adolf Hitler - European Tour 1939-45"; a portrait of Hitler with the inscription "To Ralphie from Adolph"; swastika-decorated cakes; and "Hitler Was Right" bumper stickers. The party was held in a room where Nazi memorabilia was displayed.

Engelstad apologized profusely after his parties were made public by the press and admitted bad judgement. He said the portrait was a gag gift. He also blamed disgruntled former employees for manipulating the press and conducting a smear campaign. He said his interest was purely historical, that he despised Hitler and everything he stood for and the parties were to raise employee morale. UND immediately rushed to defend its benefactor sending faculty and staff on a "fact-finding mission" to Las Vegas who, coincidentally, determined that Engelstad merely used poor judgment in holding the Hitler parties.

However, Nevada's State Gaming Control Board took a completely different view. They issued a complaint about the Nazi collection and recommended revoking Engelstad's license. The Nevada Gaming Commission levied a $1.5 million fine (at the time the second largest casino fine in the state's history) for damaging Nevada's image by glorifying Hitler and the Third Reich.

Engelstad retained his controversial reputation in Biloxi, Miss., when he announced his decision to open another Imperial Palace Casino. The coast's Jewish community cited these past incidents and expressed "deep concern" in a letter to the Mississippi Gaming Commission. While on his quest for the opening of his new casino, Engelstad was involved in a jurisdictional dispute, a lawsuit, a federal fine and a charge of trespassing leveled by the Secretary of the State. Engelstad built his casino resort above "public trust tideland," which legally belongs to the state and must be leased. However, construction began without a lease. The Secretary of State called it trespassing and said Imperial Palace owners appeared to think they were "too big, too powerful, too rich and too important to have to obey our laws."

Those in favor of changing the "Fighting Sioux" name have raised concerns that an institution of public education in a state beaten down by funding cuts, with the lowest-paid teachers in the nation, may allow itself to be influenced by its wealthiest benefactor—a man who is lobbying to reinstate a mascot that American Indian organizations and governments, wielding very little financial clout, have consistently opposed.

Engelstad's two mottoes are: "No dream comes true until you wake up and go to work," and "the harder I work, the luckier I get." He has been described by friends and colleagues as; a "visionary," a "workaholic," "loyal," a "very, very private person," and someone who would "cut off both your arms for a quarter." In an editorial, the Grand Forks Herald trumpeting Engelstad's gift reported, "Like prairie wind, Engelstad's gift blows good fortune to UND." In another article in the News From Indian Country one writer says, "Despite the flat, prairie landscape, the playing field is anything but level. And money may well determine the winner in this 'game'."

So there you have it, a little info on the man who will build us the gol-danged fanciest hockey arena in all of North Dakota... and South Dakota... and...

Oh! I almost forgot! Did you know that Engelstad's donation of $100 million represents one fourth of the money that North Dakota spends on higher education every two years? I wonder if all that money had anything to do with all those rumors...