In Warroad, concern mounts over Minnesota bills prohibiting use of American Indian nicknames

A number of bills proposed by state lawmakers either focus on or have a section prohibiting the use of American Indian nicknames in public schools.

030323 Warroad2.jpg
Warroad players celebrate their Section 8A championship against East Grand Forks Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Thief River Falls.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

WARROAD, Minn. — Warroad Public Schools is one of a handful of Minnesota school districts that still has an American Indian-derived school nickname, and some worry the “Warroad Warriors” name is in danger of being erased due to proposed legislation.

Henry Boucha, an Ojibwe hockey player who grew up in Warroad and played in the NHL, has advocated for Warroad’s nickname to remain the Warriors before. He hopes lawmakers consider the history and importance of American Indian nicknames to communities like Warroad before passing legislation that prohibits them entirely.

“Some of these people that wrote these bills have never been to Warroad,” Boucha said. “They’ve never realized the importance — on such a grand scale, that we are so proud of that.”

A number of bills proposed in the Minnesota Legislature either focus on or have a section prohibiting the use of American Indian nicknames in public schools.

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Senate File 548, introduced by Sen. Mary Kunesh, D-New Brighton, would prohibit the use or adoption of a name or image that refers to an American Indian tribe as a mascot or nickname. The bill would allow school districts to request an exemption through a written request to the Tribal Nations Education Committee and the Indian Affairs Council.


Other bills, like Senate File 619, House File 1875 and House File 1269, the House education omnibus bill, all have sections similar to Kunesh’s bill. In each, school districts can be granted exemptions by either the Tribal Nations Education Committee and the Indians Affairs Council or all 11 federally recognized tribal nations in Minnesota and the Tribal Nations Education Committee.

Calls to the sponsors of various bills — including Kunesh, Rep. Laurie Pryor, D-Minnetonka; Rep. Heather Keeler, D-Moorhead; Rep. Hodan Hassan, D-Minneapolis; Rep. Kim Hicks, D-Rochester, and Rep. Greg Davids, D-Preston — were not returned before this report was published.

Few schools in Minnesota still use American Indian-derived team names. In the northwestern Minnesota town of Red Lake, the Red Lake School District, made up of mostly American Indian students, is the Red Lake Warriors. In the southern Minnesota town of Sleepy Eye, named for an American Indian chief, the school sports teams go by the Indians. Other team names that reference American Indian tribes, objects or culture include the Esko Eskomos, Pipestone Arrows, Benson Braves and Menahga Braves.

In Warroad, the Warriors nickname is tied to a long Ojibwe history in the area. Boucha’s great-great-great-grandfather, Ay-Ash-A-Wash, was chief 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.

“He agreed to do that if, in fact, Warroad was able to go ahead and use the name the 'Warroad Warriors' because of the deep history and the hard-fought battles against the Sioux,” Boucha said.

The name has been challenged before in recent history. In 2014, the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media threatened to sue the school district if it did not give up the “Warrior” nickname. The coalition did not sue after a case was made for the name’s ties to Warroad’s history.

The logo used by Warroad Public Schools now was designed by Indigenous artists, with a trademark owned by the district’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee, said Warroad Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Yates. The sale of items with the Warroad Warrior logo generates funding for programming for Indigenous youth in the community.

The Warroad nickname’s historical ties and community approval set it apart from other sports teams the NCARSM has opposed, Boucha said.


"You compare that to the Washington Redskins, where they don’t have a basis,” he said. “Their basis came from the bloodshed when the United States was colonized — they basically had a bounty on men, women and children out on the East Coast, and when they bought the bounties, they called them the ‘redskins’ because of the blood that ran down the faces of men, women and children.”

Yates said he has sent information to District 1 lawmakers, bill authors and the governor’s office in hopes that the proposed legislation will be amended so communities like Warroad can keep their nicknames. Yates said an amendment that could make the legislation better is to only require approval from an area’s local tribal nation, rather than all 11 in the state.

“We find that to be onerous,” he said. “Requiring unanimous consent from tribal nations that are not represented here locally seems to be a bit of an infringement on local rights.”

Boucha agrees. In the case of the Warroad Warriors, he says only the Red Lake Nation should have to sign off on the name.

“I think it only takes that particular tribe to give us an ‘OK,’ and they’ve already done that, to keep the name,” he said. “They have the Red Lake Warriors, we have the Warroad Warriors. We’re proud of the names of our ancestors, and we want to carry on the tradition of what’s right.”

If Warroad had to change its nickname, the community would be outraged, said Yates, and the school district would take a financial hit, both from loss of revenue from sales of Warroad Warrior gear and costs to rebrand the entire school district.

Rep. John Burkel, R-Badger, who represents Warroad in the Legislature, said mandates in the omnibus education bill, like the one prohibiting the use of American Indian names, make him reluctant to support the bill.

“It’s just disappointing to see provisions in the bill that would eliminate their ability to use their mascot, and I’m hopeful that some of that stuff can be left to local control,” he said. “If the folks there, especially if the tribes there, want to keep that, I hope they’ll have that conversation. They’re really hopeful that can be fixed in the education bill.”

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 Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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