K-12 bill would mean new mascot at Esko, other Minnesota schools
A compromise approved Monday by a committee of Minnesota lawmakers would, with a few exceptions, bar public schools from using American Indian mascots
ST. PAUL — Part of a bill nearing the legislative finish line in the state Capitol would prompt a Northland school district to change its mascot — or at least ask American Indian leaders across Minnesota to approve it.
A K-12 education finance and policy bill that was agreed upon Saturday and formalized Monday by a committee of state senators and representatives includes a ban on American Indian mascots that would take effect Sept. 1, 2025. The bill is set for consideration in the Minnesota House, then the Minnesota Senate, then, assuming both bodies approve it, by Gov. Tim Walz. The committee reconciled the differences between a version of the bill approved by the House and a second version approved by the Senate.
It could ultimately mean a new name at a handful of school districts, including Esko Public Schools in Carlton County, where students have played under the “Eskomos” nickname for decades.
The Esko district's nickname is a local twist on “Eskimo,” a term that is largely considered offensive by the Alaska Native people to whom it refers. Esko’s school and its sports teams have traditionally used an igloo logo, but the district has moved away from the logo in recent years.
The bill, HF2497 , would prohibit school districts from using a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, person, custom or tradition as the district’s mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name.
That prohibition wouldn’t apply to schools located on reservations where at least 95% of students are American Indian, which would presumably exempt Red Lake Schools in northern Minnesota. Students there play as the Ogichidaag and Ogichidaakweg (“warriors") and use American Indian logos and other iconography.
Schools that don’t fit that bill, though, such as Esko, could ask Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations and the Tribal Nations Education Committee for an exemption to the imminent-seeming ban. If any of those bodies deny the request, the exemption is denied, and the school must remove its mascot by the September 2025 deadline.
A 2019 Forum News Service review of American Indian mascots indicated that 11 Minnesota school districts use American Indian-inspired mascots, team names, iconography or a combination thereof: Ashby, Battle Lake, Benson, Deer River, Esko, Menahga, Pipestone, Red Lake, Sleepy Eye, Warroad and Wheaton.
Shawn Yates, the superintendent at Warroad Public Schools, said lawmakers’ decision was disappointing. Leaders there plan to follow the process for receiving an exemption, he said, but the requirement for unanimous consent is “onerous.”
A provision put forth in the Senate version of the K-12 bill was tailor-made to allow Warroad to continue using its “Warriors” logo, team names and other American Indian iconography.
The provision, which did not make it into the version of the bill approved Monday by the committee, would have allowed schools to continue using an American Indian mascot if they had a “documented, historic, and supportive connection” with local tribal leaders, had a logo designed by an Indigenous artist, and had the school name, symbol and image endorsed by the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, among other stipulations.
Warroad’s school district ticks each of those boxes, according to Yates.
David Glass, the coalition’s chair and president, confirmed that they support Warroad’s name and other iconography.
“For (the coalition) to support the logo,” Yates said, “means that they recognize the – not just the importance to our school and our region, but the culture it represents and the educational value that it brings, as well as the financial support of Indigenous programming for our students.”
In Esko, there’s been a push to change the district's mascot since 2020, when students there made an online petition to change the "Eskomos" name and igloo logo.
This spring, a group of Esko parents have asked district leaders to do the same. At the forefront is Rachel Gilbertson, a parent of two Esko Public Schools students.
“It’s a pejorative term that is classifying a whole group of people with one term given by colonizers that was really meant to dehumanize them,” Gilbertson said of the name.
She said she’s grateful that the state is supporting a new name for the school.
Gilbertson and others have addressed the Esko School Board several times, urging them to consider a new mascot. The coalition headed by Glass sent a letter to Esko district leaders in April doing the same.
“To build a better future for all our children, it is time to change the Esko school nickname and related imagery,” the letter reads in part. “Regardless of the history or intentions involved, misuse of these names and images is inherently demeaning and offensive. They unavoidably place Indigenous people on the same plane as animal mascots. They inevitably rub salt in the historical wounds of racism and bigotry.”
Esko School Board Chair Jerry Frederick said last week — about five days before lawmakers reconciled the two K-12 bills — that he’s planning a meeting with other district leaders to consider their options after the school year ends.
That includes sorting out how much it might cost to replace the logo on district equipment and buildings as the district gets a handle on its budget for the 2023-24 school year.
Frederick estimated that the cost of replacing the name and other iconography would be substantial. They’re displayed on the football field, in the school’s entryway and on team uniforms.
“We’re going to think this out,” Frederick said. “There are some community members that are extremely passionate about getting rid of the name, but anything that’s not thought out completely is, in my opinion, is doomed to failure. So I would just as soon take my time, have a board meeting, have a work session, to really think about what we’re trying to do in the future.”
Superintendent Aaron Fischer did not return the News Tribune's requests for comment Monday.