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By Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald, Published April 19 2009

Racial epithet allegation sparks debate in Sioux nickname controversy

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Take the single most offensive racial epithet in American English, add “Prairie” to it, and you have what may be the most offensive thing anyone can call a Prairie Indian.

Those words appear in bold, three-quarter-inch type on fliers that are now spreading all over the Spirit Lake reservation.

They’re part of a quote opponents of the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo are alleging the late Ralph Engelstad spoke a dozen years ago in a bar, when referring to Sioux Indians trying to change the nickname of the hockey team he once played on.

Today, those trying to make that change are using the fliers as part of a campaign to convince voters on the reservation to say “no” to a referendum on the nickname and logo on Tuesday.

The explicit goal is to demonstrate that Fighting Sioux is connected

with racists.

The Herald obtained one of the fliers Thursday at a rally by nickname opponents in Fort Totten, N.D.

The Engelstad family, members of which have seen a picture of the flyer, expressed outrage.

“The allegations made against my father by name and logo opponents are the most cowardly and despicable allegations I have ever heard,” said Kris Engelstad McGarry in a prepared statement from the Engelstad Family Foundation. “My father cared deeply for the people of North Dakota and he spoke very fondly of American Indians.”

Ralph Engelstad also cared deeply about the nickname and logo, which he used liberally throughout the $100 million-plus hockey arena named after him that he built on campus.

One of the rally organizers, Erich Longie, said he’s not clear just who produced the fliers but he doesn’t disavow its use.

“Our ancestors faced overwhelming odds throughout their lives; we suffered all kinds of indignities,” he said. “Now we’re facing a foundation with millions and millions of dollars, and they’re coming on the reservation to cause all this turmoil. All we’re doing is fighting back.”

In other words: All’s fair in this asymmetrical war over the nickname and logo.

The referendum is critical for both sides because, under a settlement with the NCAA, UND cannot keep the nickname past Nov. 30, 2010, if it doesn’t win the support of both Sioux tribes in North Dakota. If Spirit Lake voters approve the referendum, and some nickname opponents think it has a good shot, it would demonstrate that at least one tribe disagrees with the NCAA that Indian nicknames are derogatory.

The justification

For Longie, it’s not whether Engelstad said what the fliers claim – though he felt the allegation is very plausible – it’s the necessity of such tactics when fighting from a weak position.

Nickname opponents both on the reservation and on campus have complained about the involvement of Ralph Engelstad Arena and the foundation in the nickname referendum. Spirit Lake opponents, Longie among them, say the foundation is pouring thousands of dollars into the pro-nickname campaign that’s dividing the tribe, pitting relatives against relatives.

Longie’s cousin, Eunice Davidson, in fact, is one of the pro-nickname organizers.

“They’re coming onto the reservation; they’re causing all kinds of problems, and now they’re complaining,” Longie said. “What do they expect?”

“In this instance, being concerned about what Ralph may or may not have said is not the issue,” he said. “Court orders, relatives battling relatives. That’s what’s inflammatory.”

Ralph Engelstad Arena, the foundation and Spirit Lake nickname supporters say there is no such funding effort. According to Davidson, all of the money comes from donations by Spirit Lake tribal members.

At issue for the foundation is the reputation of its benefactor.

“I won’t stand by while my father’s reputation is attacked almost seven years after his death,” said McGarry. “He doesn’t even have a chance to defend himself.”

Not only would Engelstad never use such language, the foundation said, he was very fond of Indians, referencing the time years ago Engelstad donated $33,000 to help the state put a statue of Sakakawea in the nation’s capital.

The foundation also criticized the moral relativism seemingly practiced by nickname opponents.

“The hypocrisy of this situation is deplorable,” the foundation said in the statement. “Name and logo opponents who claim to be the victims of a human rights violation focus their attention and their efforts on making slanderous allegations against individuals and organizations that are only indirectly associated with the central issue at stake.”

Opponents, it said, are using “race-based fear” because they know it’s the only way they have a chance of winning.

The context

Without the racial epithet, the quote on the fliers is simply a strongly worded sentiment that the speaker would rather die before letting Indians change the name of his hockey team.

But the epithet radiates a hatred that turns toxic all the words around it.

The alleged speaker is referred to by name and these descriptions: “Known Nazi sympathizer” and “Nazi lover.”

In 1986 and 1988, Ralph Engelstad held Hitler-themed private parties on the genocidal dictator’s birthday at his Las Vegas Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino, earning him a $1.5 million fine from the Nevada’s gaming authorities. He later apologized.

The flier’s designer connected Engelstad to the nickname referendum by accusing his foundation of funding the pro-nickname campaign. The foundation and Spirit Lake nickname supporters have denied the allegation, saying all funding came from Spirit Lake donors.

There were other fliers at the Thursday rally that also attempted to hammer home the message that the nickname has racist supporters, though none were as inflammatory as the fliers with the racial epithet.

The origins

It’s difficult to convey the impact of the alleged Engelstad quote containing the racial epithet, but the Herald is choosing not to repeat it because the newspaper cannot verify its origin.

Terry Morgan, another anti-nickname organizer, said Friday that opponents had a “signed affidavit” from a witness who allegedly heard the damning quote, but that he’d have to find it.

The Herald could not reach him Saturday to see if he found the document.

According to Morgan, the witness was a white bartender who served two men in 1997. The men said terrible things about Indians in the course of a conversation about the Fighting Sioux nickname. The bartender thought one of the men was Ralph Engelstad and checked with his manager, who verified it was.

Morgan noted that the bartender said he was proud of the nickname until he heard those words.

Jody Hodgson, the general manager of Ralph Engelstad Arena and a representative of the foundation, questioned the timing of the allegation. This quote was spoken 12 years ago, he said, but it is just now emerging in the middle of a contentious political campaign.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.