Minnesota education bills, which include ban on American Indian nicknames, move to conference committee

The prohibition of American Indian nicknames is one of the many differences in the education omnibus bills that the Conference Committee on House File 2497 will work to resolve.

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. — As legislation addressing the use of American Indian nicknames in Minnesota public schools is debated in a conference committee, not everybody with ties to Warroad Public Schools is supportive of efforts to allow the school district to keep its nickname.

Tréchelle Bunn, an Indigenous woman, Warroad High School alumni and former Warroad High hockey player, sees the Warroad Warriors nickname as outdated. Growing up in a small town in Manitoba just across the U.S.-Canada border, she said she first experienced racism when she transferred to Warroad Public Schools in middle school. It was perpetuated by other students wearing Warroad Warriors clothing.

“No matter how much education you try to push and no matter how good of intentions you may have to try to change the idea that you can have the logo and still respect Indigenous culture, it’s just not possible,” Bunn said. “You’re opening that door, you’re making that segue for that racism and that degrading.”

Earlier in the Minnesota legislative session, a number of bills with sections prohibiting the use of American Indian nicknames and logos in public schools were introduced. Late in the session, just two remain: House File 2497, the House Education Finance omnibus bill, and Senate File 1311, the Senate Education Policy omnibus bill. An amendment to SF 1311 would allow Warroad to continue using the Warriors nickname and logo.

The potential ban on the use of American Indian nicknames has stirred concern in Warroad, where the “Warroad Warriors” nickname references the town’s long Ojibwe history. A man named 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 on the condition that the school used the nickname the “Warroad Warriors” for athletic competitions to honor those who fell in battle, according to history.


Many in Warroad have voiced their support for the continued use of the Warriors nickname, including the school district. Others with ties to the community, including former Warroad and NHL hockey player Henry Boucha, have also shown their support.

“Some of these people that wrote these bills have never been to Warroad,” Boucha told the Herald in March. “They’ve never realized the importance.”

While she is against the continued use of the Warroad Warriors nickname, Bunn wants to make sure Indigenous voices of all opinions are centered in the discussion.

“I’m all for Indigenous voices being shared and heard, whether that is people who have the same opinion as me or different opinions,” she said. “I just want to make sure that Indigenous voices are front and center on this issue, and what I was seeing was a lot of non-Indigenous people engaging in this conversation, which plays into the centuries-old narrative of non-Indigenous peoples deciding issues regarding Indigenous people.”

Bunn says it is time to honor the history of Warroad and other Indigenous communities in a different way.

“As Indigenous people, we can be proud of our history and our history can be celebrated and our culture can be celebrated without having to be nicknames,” she said.

The prohibition of American Indian nicknames is one of the many differences in the education omnibus bills that the conference committee on HF 2497 will work to resolve in the coming days. The committee first met on Monday, May 1.

HF 2497 outlines a prohibition on American Indian nicknames, with an exemption allowed if the use of the nickname is approved by all 11 federally recognized tribal nations in Minnesota and the Tribal Nations Education Committee. If any of the tribal nations or the Tribal Nations Education Committee deny the request, the exemption is not granted.


SF 1311 outlines the same prohibition and exemption, but an amendment introduced by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, would allow schools like Warroad to use an American Indian nickname without going through the approval process.

The amendment allows a public school to have an American Indian nickname or logo if the district can meet a series of criteria.

The school district would have to be able to demonstrate a historic connection between the school and an American Indian tribe or tribal leader. The logo would need to be designed by an Indigenous artist and trademarked by the school’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee. Proceeds from the sale of items displaying the school logo must be used for programs benefiting Indigenous youth, and the district needs endorsement of its school nickname, symbol and image from the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media.

Johnson introduced his amendment on Monday, March 24, and it was accepted into the bill as a friendly amendment.

The language in the amendment mirrors the situation of Warroad Public Schools. In addition to the historic connection between the school and an American Indian tribe, the logo was designed by Indigenous artists and the trademark is owned by the district’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee. The sale of items generates funding for programming for Indigenous youth in the community.

The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media threatened to sue Warroad Public Schools if it did not give up the Warrior nickname in 2014, but endorsed the nickname after its ties to Warroad’s history were explained.

Johnson said the narrowly tailored amendment was more palatable to the bill’s authors than a broad exception to the prohibition.

“I don’t know what the story is for a lot of those schools, and Warroad is very unique in the relationship that they have with the tribe, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t casting a broad net and including schools that would make it less likely this language would pass,” he said.


The conference committee on HF 2497 consists of Sen. Mary Kunesh, D-New Brighton; Sen. Heather Gustafson, D-Vadnais Heights; Sen. Erin Maye Quade, D-Apple Valley; Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, D-Eden Prairie; Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville; Rep. Cheryl Youakim, D-Hopkins; Rep. Josiah Hill, D-Stillwater; Rep. Laurie Pryor, D-Minnetonka, Rep. Mary Frances Clardy, D-Inver Grove Heights, and Rep. Ron Kresa, R-Little Falls.

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.
What To Read Next
Get Local