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A national organization is threatening to sue the Warroad, Minn., school district over its use of an American Indian mascot, the Warriors.

The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media sent a letter to Warroad Public Schools on Thursday, asking the district to begin transitioning away from using the Warriors logo, which is an American Indian head.

If the school district doesn’t contact the coalition and start that process in 30 days, the coalition may pursue legal action, according to the letter, which cites the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 as making the logo discriminatory and illegal.

“If you choose to remain in denial, we will after a 30 day waiting period file all necessary and available actions to enforce the laws,” the letter stated.

Representatives from the Warroad school district did not return calls from the Herald Friday.


Federal action

Warroad is just one of four public school districts the national coalition, based in Minneapolis, contacted Thursday. Others were Lamar, Colo., home of the Savages; Sarasota, Fla., with the Indians; and Wellpinit, Wash., with the Redskins. Wellpinit is part of the Spokane Indian Reservation.

The four schools contacted are just “a sample” in the coalition’s plan to expunge discriminatory mascots from all schools in the U.S., said Alan Yelsey, board member of the coalition, who helped write the letter to Warroad schools.

“We decided to sample four schools, but our actions will be on behalf of all indigenous children,” he said.

If Warroad or the other three schools do not respond, the coalition will not necessarily move straight toward a lawsuit, Yelsey said. First, it will contact the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. secretary of education, asking them to enforce the civil rights act in all public schools.

“We’d like to think they’d make a ruling across the board,” he said.

If that fails, the coalition will pursue lawsuits against the schools separately, and will continue to contact other schools with offensive mascots, he said. “We’ll contact every school in America.”


Native legacy

Warroad, which is about 130 miles northeast of Grand Forks, has a significant Ojibwe population, many of whom do not agree with the coalition’s attempt at getting rid of the Warrior logo, said Henry Boucha, a former NHL player and U.S. Olympian who is an Ojibwe from Warroad.

He played high school hockey there.

Warroad is well known for its hockey program, having won several state championships. A number of NHL players and Olympians have graduated from Warroad.

Boucha said Warroad’s mascot was addressed by the school district in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and at the request of several American Indian community groups, the district decided to keep the mascot.

“I think each community should be able to determine what their mascot should be,” he said. “We are proud of what the ‘Warrior’ name represents.”

Many Ojibwe are proud of their heritage, which includes battling Sioux for land near Warroad, hence the name “Warriors,” Boucha said. That battle is also why the town is named “war road,” he said.

He added that just because Warroad wants to keep its mascot doesn’t mean there aren’t other towns where similar mascots are considered offensive.

“The national coalition has done some great work in the past, but I think they overstepped the boundaries this time,” he said.


Why Warroad?

Warroad was chosen as one of the first school districts the coalition addressed because the coalition wanted a school from its home state among its examples, Yelsey said.

 In Minnesota, there were few mascots to choose from, “which is good news,” he said.

Also, Warroad’s situation is different than the other three school mascots chosen, Yelsey said, because the name “Warriors” alone is not offensive, but applying that word to American Indians, including using the logo, is deemed offensive.

It isn’t just a logo, though, Yelsey said. Often schools with mascots depicting American Indians will have students painting their faces or wearing headdresses, which is exploitive of indigenous culture, he said.

Click here: For full text of the letter sent to Warroad schools

Clarification and correction: The use of the word "mascot" here includes any symbolic use of a group of people or animal to represent a sports team, including nicknames and logos. That's how the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media uses the term in its letter to the Warroad school district. "Mascot" as used here does not necessarily imply a person in a costume or a cartoon-like character, neither of which are used by the Warroad Warriors. The Warriors use only a nickname and logo.

There was also an error in the second to last paragraph regarding the number of schools approached by the coalition. Only four were approached, including Warroad.