New law on mascots means a change of identity for some Minnesota schools

DULUTH – “Braves,” the nickname of the northern Minnesota Menahga school district is found all over its schools, embedded in bright orange across its gym floors, painted on its walls and printed on every clock face.

This month, Menahga school officials are confronted with tallying up costs to erase the name as they face a new state law that bans public school districts from having any nicknames, logos or mascots tied to Native Americans.

“We are prepared to do what we need [do] to be right,” Superintendent Jay Kjos said.

The legislation was signed by Gov. Tim Walz in May and follows national pressure to change the names of pro sports teams in Washington DC and Cleveland, and, closer to home, the Fighting Sioux nickname of the University of North Dakota.

The number of school districts using Indigenous mascots or logos in Minnesota has dwindled to about a dozen in the last three decades, after the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union and the state education department requested they stop in 1989. There were more than 50 districts then.

For some school districts, a mascot is part of their local culture and identity, “but we have also heard the other side of the story,” said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton who sponsored the legislation. “In the past, it’s not always a positive depiction.”

Kunesh, a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has been working with Minnesota tribes for several years to pass legislation that bars such logos.

Districts have until 2025 to either seek unanimous permission from each of the state’s 11 sovereign nations to keep their nickname or choose a new identity.

But the logistics of the law and how it will work is a mystery to some school leaders, many who say they are awaiting guidance. Some are planning to seek exemption and others are rolling out immediate changes.

What’s next

The nickname of the Sleepy Eye school district is the Indians. Its logo depicts a Dakota chief that is said to honor the southern Minnesota city’s namesake and important local figure, Ish-tak-ha-ba.

Superintendent John Cselovszki said last week that the district would apply for an exemption, but declined to speak further, noting he wanted to stay out of media reports until the exemption process was finished.

Some district leaders have lingering questions about how to proceed. They know what the law says, but what about the details? Does the legislation include money to replace what could amount to thousands of dollars in new athletic uniforms, outdoor field turf, signage and paint? What should they do with old uniforms? How do they know if their district is among those who need to comply?

“We would never want to do anything that would be disrespectful,” said Kevin Enerson, superintendent of southwestern Minnesota’s Pipestone schools, home of the Arrows. “I haven’t been contacted by anyone regarding our mascot. I’m not exactly sure where we are at.”

The Minnesota Department of Education gives little direction on its website, indicating a few examples of what is no longer acceptable, and sharing how to make exemption requests. A spokesman for the department said the Tribal Nations Education Committee, made up of educators from the state’s Indigenous tribes, is in charge of the effort. Its chair could not be reached for this story.

Several of the tribes declined to comment on the new law, which doesn’t apply to schools on reservations where the majority of students are Indigenous.

Kunesh said no funding was set aside to help districts pay for the mandated changes, in part because it wasn’t clear who would apply for an exemption. Kunesh, the chair of the Senate’s education finance committee, said if districts say money is a roadblock, lawmakers could “relook at that.”

Some school districts anticipated the legislation and began making new purchases and changes to reflect it.

The Menahga district — which sits between the White Earth and Leech Lake reservations — has recently ordered uniforms in need of replacement that display only the school colors. The district, which plans to apply for an exemption, also previously changed its Indigenous mascot to the letter M.

The Esko school district years ago stopped using a logo that included an Eskimo next to an igloo. It’s Eskomo nickname is a play on the word Eskimo, a term for the Inuit people living in Alaska and other Arctic regions that is considered offensive because it was used by non-native colonizers.

School officials there are moving quickly to comply with the new law. The school board has already voted to stop using the igloo logo and the Eskomo nickname, effective next month. The decision caused some distress in the small, Finnish-heavy town, 20 minutes from Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation.

The nickname was never meant to mock Indigenous people, said resident and Esko graduate Tim Kulas, who has a child enrolled in the district.

“It becomes like an identity of your town, and a sense of pride and camaraderie,” he said.

Esko football coach Scott Arntson said his team leaned into the northern aspect of the name, as part of the state’s Polar League Conference.

It indicated resilience, hard work and intelligence, he said, character traits “that we would want our student athletes to exhibit, that would be the same characteristics you might find in some original American people.”

Still, “we are looking forward, and it’s an opportunity for us with a new identity,” Arntson said.

Historical ties

The northern Minnesota Warroad Warriors have been criticized before. A decade ago, the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media threatened the school district with a lawsuit related to its nickname and logo that depicts an Indigenous man wearing feathers. The coalition backed off after speaking with Henry Boucha, a member of a nearby Canadian Ojibwe First Nation who attended Warroad schools and played hockey for the NHL. He is now a member of the coalition.

Boucha said an Ojibwe chief sold some land for the first Warroad school to be built more than a century ago, and a stipulation of the deal was that the “Warrior” name be used for athletics “in honor of the many battles we had with the Sioux.”

“Warroad has got an amazing history of the Ojibwe coming into the area through migration, like many other tribes,” Boucha said this week. “The blood of our ancestors is there. … We are proud of our name and logo.”

Warroad Superintendent Shawn Yates made the 6-hour drive to St. Paul several times this year to object to the legislation. He said the district will apply for an exemption to continue to use its nickname and its logo, created by an Indigenous artist.

“The name of the town is based on the fact that it was a war trail for the Ojibwe,” Yates said, a history the nickname helps teach, and a history of the school district takes pains to share. “This is not a boilerplate on a jersey. It means so much more to so many people here.”

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