At Red Lake School District in northwest Minnesota, drummers pound out a flag song before basketball games. District leaders ceremonially burn sage before school board meetings. Students bead their graduation caps and learn how to tap maple trees to make syrup and candies while staff cook bread over a fire.
The public school district is headquartered near the southern end of Red Lake Nation, a sprawling Ojibwe community about 40 minutes from Bemidj that owns land as far north as the Northwest Angle. Approximately half of Red Lake’s 12,000-plus members live on the reservation.
Athletes at Red Lake High School are the Ogichidaag and Ogichidaakweg -- “Warriors” -- and the school’s boys basketball team wears those Ojibwemowin words in place of the English translation on their jerseys. The logo on the district’s website is a profile of a resolute-looking man in a headdress and a sign outside the gym welcomes visitors to “Warrior Nation.”
Virtually all of the school’s approximately 250 students are American Indian. Educators there and at several other North Dakota and Minnesota schools with American Indian team names said it’s important that the moniker under which their students play reflects who they are.
“It gives them an identity,” said Michael Barrett, a Red Lake Nation enrollee who chairs the district’s school board. “Most of us are proud to be Warriors.”
A similar sentiment can be found at the mostly American Indian Warwick Public School in Warwick, N.D., where athletes also are called the Warriors.
“It’s important that kids recognize that their Indian Native heritage is important in this world, too,” said Dean Dauphinais, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and Warwick’s superintendent. “So the Native Americans have their own things to be proud of, and sometimes those are the things that they have to hang on to and they can be proud of, whether it be a warrior head or an Indian, Native head on a T-shirt or whatever it’s on. I think our kids feel good about that.”
Like Red Lake, Warwick drums out a flag song before games and uses an American Indian logo at its gym and on some uniforms. Almost all of the 100-plus students there are American Indian.
But what about schools that don’t fit that profile?
Across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, high schools that are overwhelmingly white call themselves the “Braves,” “Indians,” “Chiefs,” “Sioux” and more.
To some, that’s a problem, and opponents are taking action. Maine, for instance, recently passed state legislation that bans American Indian team names and imagery.
Yet many are fine with it. And leaders at the mostly white schools in the Dakotas and Minnesota who maintain American Indian-themed nicknames said they have felt little or no recent pressure to change.
‘That’s up to them’
Reporters from three Forum Communications Company newspapers -- the Herald in Grand Forks, the Pioneer in Bemidji and The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D. -- called more than a dozen schools in those three states that still use American Indian names or imagery for their sports teams. Most of the school administrators and officials at schools whose student body is mostly American Indian said they don’t have a problem with white schools using American Indian names or imagery.
“Whatever those schools want to do, that’s up to them,” Dauphinais said, echoing the sentiments of multiple interviewees. “I, personally, don’t want to get involved in that. And I encourage our kids … to stay focused on who you are and what you’re doing and we will be good.”
Larry Thiele, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate member who heads the school board in Warwick, said he’d want to know the history behind a given team’s name before judging it. He is not, however, OK with tomahawk chops or “Sioux” team names.
“That’s a derogatory name that was given to us,” Thiele said, referring to the commonly held notion that “Sioux” is a bastardized version of the Ojibwemowin word for “snakes” or an approximation thereof. “They’re not bringing us any honor or anything because that’s not who we are.”
One administrator at Red Lake, in Minnesota, had stronger words. Red Lakers, said Principal Tracy Olson, are rightfully “warriors” because they were on the front lines of conflicts with the Lakota and resisted the United States government’s allotment policy that shrunk tribal land holdings by more than half.
“When I hear about other schools doing it, I just wonder: What part of the mythology or the stereotypes around indigenous people are they relying on?” Olson said.
Don’t see it as negative
Administrators at white schools with American Indian team names said they feel their school’s nicknames are appropriate.
“It’s been something we’ve always been used to,” said Matt Johnson, the school board president at Bottineau Public School in North Dakota, where the boys teams are the Braves and the girls teams are the Stars. “We don’t see it as anything negative.”
At Mandan (N.D.) High School, athletes have been known as the Braves for years. Yet the school has only about 70 American Indian students out of a student body that’s 1,000 strong.
“It’s not the, you know, savages. It’s the Braves,” said Tim Rector, the school board chair at Mandan Public Schools. “It’s a prideful-type moniker.”
The high school teams in the southern Minnesota town of Sleepy Eye, which is named for a Native American chief, go by the name Indians. Superintendent John Cselovszki said the school district makes every effort to remain respectful in its use of the name. Cselovszki said the school received permission from a local tribe to use the name.
There would be an uproar, Cselovszki said, if the school were asked to drop its nickname.
“The community would be really upset about that because we feel we are really honoring a name,” he said. “We feel this is a positive image. We do it to honor basically the person who the town is named after.”
‘Never been any pressure’
And leaders at white schools with American Indian team names who spoke to Forum News Service said they haven’t been pushed in recent memory to change their names or imagery.
“There’s never been any pressure,” said Bottineau’s Johnson. “I’ve been on the board for 15, 20 years and we haven’t had any requests in my time.”
One district made a minor change nonetheless: Mandan High School has been moving away from its former “Indian head” logo in favor of a large “M,” over which “Braves” is written in cursive script. The school replaced its gym floor a few years ago and staff decided to replace the logo there, too.
The city itself is named for the Mandan people, who have lived in that region for centuries.
“Just didn’t need to aggravate anybody,” said Tim Rector, Mandan’s school board chair. “We put an ‘M’ in the middle, not an Indian head logo, because we’re Mandan. That’s what we’re identified as.”
The school’s football field and website both sport the “M” now, too.
Changing the teams’ names was probably discussed in passing, Rector said, but he hasn’t heard anyone complain about the name during his decade-plus tenure there.
Mandan Superintendent Mike Bitz said school staff meet regularly with Standing Rock leaders about federal funding and broader student issues. He said the school’s team nickname hasn’t come up.
Asked if he’d be amenable to changing the teams’ name if Standing Rock leadership asked for it to be changed, Bitz said he wouldn’t go into hypotheticals.
New names – or not
In Woonsocket, S.D., where the local school’s teams were known as the Redmen, the need to keep the district’s sports programs viable -- and not social pressure -- led to a name change. In 2011, Woonsocket and nearby Sanborn Central began to co-op for nearly all sports, using the nickname Blackhawks. Woonsocket then moved on from the school’s longstanding Redmen name.
“It���s an emotional subject and people on all sides feel strongly about it,” Woonsocket Superintendent Rod Weber said. “Things have been going good with the co-op and the mascot is working out well. I have to say that I don’t think about it much anymore.”
The school stopped using Native American imagery in 2001. A few years ago, Woonsocket replaced the large “Redmen” block lettering on its gym wall with “Blackhawks.” Weber said the decisions about nicknames have to be made locally, as it was in his town of about 650 people.
“It’s certainly a decision that the entire school and community need to make,” Weber said. “Times do change and society changes, too.”
Iroquois, which is located 40 miles from Woonsocket and plays in the same athletic conference, has maintained its Chiefs nickname. The town of fewer than 300 people was named after the Iroquois tribe, and town planners named the streets after American Indian phrases and words: Huron, Washita, Kiowa, Quapaw, and so on. Statistically, fewer than 3 percent of the district’s students are Native American.
Superintendent Mike Ruth said he’s aware there might be some who wonder why his school still has the Chiefs name and a chief logo. But he said the issue has never come up in a serious manner to consider a change.
“I think our mascot symbol is very symbolic of how the Native American tradition should be depicted,” Ruth said. “In the past, teams would use the red, weathered face of a chief, and we’ve purposely avoided that with a softer-faced logo and a determined expression.”
Ruth, who has been Iroquois’ superintendent for six years, admitted he’s been a “little sheepish” about playing schools from reservations. A few of those schools have American Indian-themed nicknames, as well.
“I guess I’ve wondered how they feel about it, but no one has ever told me they’ve seen it as disrespectful,” he said.
In 2016, the South Dakota High School Activities Association approved a resolution that “encourages its membership to consider not using any stereotypical Indian imagery and Indian mascots that cause harm.” But it left mascot and nickname decisions up to local officials. The Minnesota State High School League similarly discouraged use of Native American mascots and logos in 1988.
Those are two points made within a broader discussion – argument, even – about teams that use American Indian names and imagery.
A move to change the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” name and mascot divided Grand Forks for years. Fans still shout “home of the Sioux” over “home of the brave” at the end of the national anthem at Fighting Hawks home games. The Ralph Engelstad Arena, where the university hockey team plays, has retained references to the old team name and imagery.
It extends to high school sports, too. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a handful of Wisconsin districts are working to get the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to push for legislation that would effectively ban schools from using American Indian mascots and imagery.
Earlier this month, a high school in Boise, Idaho, changed its nickname from the Braves to the Brave, according to the Idaho Statesman, after consulting with the Shoshone-Bannock tribe.
But some schools have resisted: five years ago in Minnesota, the Minneapolis-based National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media pressured Warroad High School to drop its “Warriors” logo. It stepped back after Henry Boucha, an Ojibwe hockey star who grew up in Warroad, met with coalition leaders to present the history behind the town and logo. He told them the town’s name comes from the “war road” Ojibwe people would travel to battle the nearby Dakota and Lakota people, and that the American Indian community there came together to design the high school’s logo.
Some see harm
Anton Treuer, an author and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, said no school should use American Indian names or imagery because there’s a possibility other schools, regardless of their team name, could use it against them.
“Opposing fans always defile their opponents’ mascot in the name of team spirit,” Treuer said. “Even if the home team is actually trying to find some respectful way, like the Cleveland Indians trying to do away with the caricature of Chief Wahoo, that still doesn’t indemnify the experience or protect it from being filled with racism because whoever’s playing the Indians are going to say, ‘scalp the Indians.’”
And there’s at least some evidence that American Indian team names and mascots are a problem, regardless of who sports them.
John Gonzalez, a Bemidji State psychology professor and White Earth Nation enrollee, pointed to research he said indicates American Indian mascots are psychologically harmful, albeit subtly.
One of those studies was conducted by Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of American Indian studies and psychology at the University of Washington. Fryberg found that American Indian students “generated positive associations” but reported “depressed state self-esteem,” “community worth” and “fewer achievement-related possible selves” after looking at depictions of common American Indian images such as Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, and more. The researchers suggested that American Indian mascots “are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”
“There’s this sort of underlying, you know, sort of internalized oppression that’s actually happening,” Gonzalez said. “You start to sort of unconsciously take on the beliefs that the dominant society, the oppressor, has toward yourself.”