MYERS COLUMN: Minnesota legislators seek to continue Columbus' sad traditions in high school nickname debate
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.
Editor's note: This opinion column was written for The Rink Live, a Forum News Service outlet, by Jess Myers. The opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bemidji Pioneer.
In a legendary bit of erroneous nautical navigation from world history, Christopher Columbus thought he had found India in October 1492, when his trio of ships made landfall in the Caribbean. In his confusion, Columbus gave the Indigenous people he encountered there (and eventually enslaved) the name “Indians.”
Thus was born a practice that is now more than five centuries old — Indigenous people in North America being told by others what they can name themselves. It is a tradition that a group of Minnesota state legislators seems hell-bent on upholding in 2023, with a classic bit of authoritarian overreach regarding American Indian names and imagery in use at a half-dozen public schools in the state.
Times are pretty good in Minnesota, and especially at the state Capitol, these days. A historic budget surplus means that there are the resources needed to invest in lots of things that could be improved — schools, roads, public safety, etc. The next election is more than a year away, meaning the urge ask for campaign money is at an ebb right now. So with a few lines of text tucked inside a massive 114-page education funding bill, a dozen or so elected officials (all of them Democrats, most of them from the Twin Cities) have concocted a perfect solution to an imaginary problem.
A generation ago, there were myriad offensive and improper portrayals of Indigenous people in sports. Honorable advocates like the late Clyde Bellecourt fought a valiant and sometimes lonely fight, and ultimately prevailed. Racist nicknames like Washington’s Redskins, offensive logos like Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo and insensitive costumed mascots like Chief Illiniwek at Illinois are all gone. What remains are nicknames and logos designed and used with great care and cultural sensitivity, honoring the history and the culture of the native people they represent.
Still, language in the bill would force five Minnesota public schools — Benson, Deer River, Pipestone, Red Lake, Sleepy Eye and Warroad — to have others determine what they call themselves.
“A public school may not have or adopt a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian Tribe, individual, custom, or tradition to be used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name of the district or school within the district,” is the specific language in the bill. They offer one exception: if a school that wants to use an American Indian nickname or logo gets approval from all 11 federally recognized Tribal Nations in Minnesota, it would be allowed.
In other words, the people of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, who have approved and blessed the name “Warriors” and the American Indian logos used at schools in Warroad and Red Lake, would have to travel hundreds of miles and seek approval from tribal governments — in southern Minnesota in order to call themselves the name they have chosen and blessed. If the Red Lake Nation, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the White Earth Nation, the Lower Sioux Indian Community, the Upper Sioux Indian Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community all voted their approval, their current locally blessed names and logos could stay.
In March at the Capitol, just a few days after Warroad’s boys hockey team made a spirited run to within a double overtime goal of another state title, the bill was discussed in the House Education Finance Committee. In the audience were a handful of people from Warroad, including a pair of players from the school’s 2023 state champion girls hockey team. All of them had traveled nearly 400 miles to be there.
Kaiya and Katierie Sandy, Indigenous students and hockey players who represent their people, their school and their community, sat in the front row of the gallery. They wore the same black and gold Warroad Warriors hockey sweaters they had donned a month earlier, a few blocks down the hill at Xcel Energy Center, where they had helped earn another banner for the rink in Hockeytown USA. Their boys team featured a handful of indigenous players as well, including 2023 Mr. Hockey winner Jayson Shaugabay, who is enrolled in the White Earth Nation.
Henry Boucha, the well-known Anishinabe man who is a former Olympian, NHL standout and member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, spoke on behalf of the school and the community, going a bit over the two minutes he was allotted. He reiterated some of the history behind the name. Warroad was the English moniker used for “Ka bay kah nog” which translated from Ojibwe, means “the road to war.” In 1915, the local chief, Na-May-Poke, sold tribal land along the Warroad River to the community for pennies on the dollar, as a place where Warroad’s first school was built. The teams from Warroad were nicknamed “warriors” in honor of this generosity.
Their current logo was designed by the school’s active Indian Education Department, and blessed by the local tribe. A decade ago, the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media threatened Warroad schools with a lawsuit, seeking to have the name and logo changed. Then, upon learning of the region’s history, dropped the threat, gave Warroad its blessing and appointed Boucha to the organization’s board of directors.
Before a dozen or so legislators, Boucha spoke about the honor that comes with wearing the name and logo that his people have blessed for their school, the formation of which took root a century ago.
“Every one of our students is educated by the time they graduate about the recognition and responsibility that (the) knowledge will be carried forward with that honor of being a Warroad Warrior,” he said. In response, the legislators offered nothing. No questions, no acknowledgment of his comments, no apparent understanding of the issue at hand and why it is so important to so many. The only comments Boucha heard from the committee chair were a gentle reminder that he had gone over his allotted two minutes, and a polite thank you for his time.
As the legislative session barrels headlong to its inevitably messy conclusion, as is an every-year tradition in Minnesota, this most culturally insensitive language asking Indigenous people to seek others’ permission to call themselves by the name they have chosen remains intact in the education bill. There was hope of an amendment to strip the nickname/logo language or to change it to local approval, rather than forcing schools to seek 11 different tribes’ blessing, but that idea has seemingly been forgotten.
We live in a place and an era where we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day rather than honor the complicated legacy of Christopher Columbus. Still, a handful of Minnesota politicians are determined to uphold one of the Italian explorer’s 500-year-old traditions and tell some of Minnesota’s native people what they are allowed to call themselves, in 2023.