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Bill with ban on Native American nicknames in Minnesota headed to governor's desk

Included in the $2.2 billion bill is a prohibition on the use of a name, symbol or image depicting Native American people or traditions to be used as a mascot, nickname or team name of a school district.

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The Warroad Warriors celebrate their Section 8A championship over East Grand Forks Thursday, March 2, 2023 in Thief River Falls.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

WARROAD, Minn. — A proposed ban on the use of Native American nicknames and mascots in Minnesota public school districts is inching closer to becoming law after the Minnesota House and Senate approved a version of the education spending and policy bill containing the policy. Throughout the legislative session, the proposed ban has caused concern in Warroad, Minnesota, where the school district uses the “Warroad Warriors” nickname.

On Tuesday, May 16, the Minnesota House passed House Bill 2497, followed by the Senate early on Wednesday morning, May 17. In the House, it passed along party lines, 70-62, and in the Senate, it passed 35-32. Included in the $2.2 billion bill is a prohibition on the use and adoption of a name, symbol or image depicting Native American people or traditions to be used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of a school district.

The prohibition does not apply to schools located within one of the reservations of the federally recognized tribal nations in Minnesota where 95% of students are American Indian.

Legislation moving forward at the state Capitol would force six Minnesota high schools to seek the approval of people from hundreds of miles away to continue use of their local schools' names.

Schools that don’t fall under that exception will be able to request an exemption from the prohibition by submitting a written request to all of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations and the Tribal Nations Education Committee. If that request is denied by any of the entities the school must comply with the prohibition.

If signed by Gov. Tim Walz, the ban on Native American mascots and nicknames will go into effect on July 1. Schools seeking an exemption must request it by Dec. 15, and if denied, must comply with the prohibition by Sept. 1, 2025.


Warroad Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Yates did not respond to requests for comment by the publication of this report, but on Monday, May 16, he told the Duluth News Tribune school leaders plan to follow the process for receiving an exemption.

In Warroad, the Warroad Warriors nickname has ties to the town’s long Ojibwe history. A man named Ay-Ash-A-Wash was chief of Warroad during a war against the Sioux. Ay-Ash-A-Wash’s son, Na-May-Poke, sold part of his land for the first Warroad school on the condition that the school used the nickname the “Warroad Warriors” for athletic competitions to honor those who fell in battle, according to the school district.

The nickname has been challenged in the past. In 2014, the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media threatened to sue the school district if it did not give up its nickname, but ended up supporting the nickname after a case was made for its ties to Warroad’s history.

The current logo used by Warroad Public Schools was designed by an Indigenous artist and is trademarked by the school’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee. Proceeds from the sales of merchandise with the logo are used to fund programming for Indigenous youth in the community.

Representatives from Warroad Public Schools, including Superintendent Shawn Yates, advocated against the legislation in St. Paul earlier in the legislative session. Henry Boucha, an Ojibwe man who grew up in Warroad and former NHL hockey player, also testified against the prohibition and exemption requiring the approval of all 11 tribal nations in Minnesota.

Not everyone with ties to Warroad supports the use of the Warroad Warriors nickname. Tréchelle Bunn, an Indigenous woman, Warroad High School alumni and former Warroad Warriors hockey player, helped organize written testimony of Indigenous Warroad community members in support of the prohibition of Native American mascots and nicknames.

“As Indigenous people, we can be proud of our history and our history can be celebrated and our culture can be celebrated without having to be nicknames,” she told the Herald in May.

An earlier version of the bill approved by the Senate provided an exception to the Native American mascot prohibition that would have allowed Warroad to keep its nickname. An amendment to the bill introduced by Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, would have allowed a school to keep its nickname or logo if the district met a set of criteria that included a historic connection between the school and an American Indian tribe, a logo designed by an Indigenous artist and an endorsement from the National Coalition Against Racism in sports.


The exception was narrowly tailored to Warroad Public Schools to make it more palatable to the bill’s authors than a broad exception, Johnson told the Herald.

The version of the Senate bill that contained the exception went to conference committee, where members of the House and Senate convened to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills, but the exception was not included in the final version of the bill.

On the House floor on Tuesday, Rep. John Burkel, R-Badger, spoke about the Warroad Warriors history and expressed his dismay that Johnson’s amendment did not make the final cut of the bill.

“We were able to fix this in the Senate with an amendment that was stripped out in conference committee, and I’m failing to understand why — we had a number of our members from Warroad down to address the issue with the authors of the bill and the provision,” Burkel said.

If Warroad Public Schools has to change its nickname, the school will take a financial hit, Yates told the Herald in March.

“Not only does it take away funding for Indigenous youth programming, but in the short term, it would be excessively onerous to try to replace all of the various aspects from probably hundreds of thousands of dollars, not just in sports uniforms,” Yates said. “We quickly get into the range of half a million dollars or more in actual fiscal impact.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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