Two tribes decline to endorse ban on bison mascot for Rochester school

It’s not clear why the bison falls into the category of Native American names and mascots subject to unanimous approval or not by Minnesota tribes, as ordained by the DFL-controlled 2023 state legislature. Yet the Rochester Dakota Middle School’s bison has become the latest casualty of the law giving the state’s 11 tribal entities complete say over the suitability of mascots by school districts. As the Post Bulletin points out, there was little to no explanation provided as to why the bison failed to make the cut.

The tribal nations that rejected Rochester Public Schools’ exemption request that would have allowed Dakota Middle School to keep its bison mascot provided little context for doing so.

The school recently announced it would have to change its mascot under new state legislation that prohibits schools from using American Indian imagery for such purposes.

In fact, the middle school says officials received the courtesy of a response from just five of the 11 tribal entities empowered to review its exemption request. Three of the respondents denied Rochester Public School’s appeal to allow the bison to continue representing Dakota Middle School in athletic and other activities.

“The Tribal Nations Education Committee has reviewed your request,” the committee told RPS in its brief response. “The TNEC denies your exemption request for the Bison name and mascot…”

In addition to the TNEC, the Lower Sioux Indian Community and White Earth Reservation opposed RPS’ exemption request.

It takes simply one negative reply from the group to tank a school’s request. Yet the responses from two of the tribes indicates there’s may be more difference of opinion within tribal nations on the subject than some might expect.

The other two tribal nations that responded declined taking a stance on the matter. Grand Portage Reservation said it was deferring the decision to Prairie Island Indian Community, since that is the closest American Indian community to Rochester Public Schools.

Similarly, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community also deferred deciding on the matter. However, that community was the one to elaborate most on the situation.

“While we support the intent of the statute, we believe our tribal government should not decide nor dictate your school’s decision-making authority, especially if another tribe in your community is already working with you on this issue,” the tribe said in its response.

Dakota Middle School staff worked closely with the Prairie Island Indian Community when selecting the bison as the mascot upon opening in 2020. But their efforts failed to overcome the other tribes’ opposition.

The tribal community closest to Rochester, Prairie Island, didn’t provide a formal response to the district’s exemption request. However, Prairie Island did respond briefly to a request for comment from the Post Bulletin, saying it would not comment on “any actions taken by the TNEC.”

School district officials have not disclosed the estimated cost for selecting a new mascot and replacing signs, stationery and other items with the bison stamped on. Benson school officials going through the same process estimate the cost at about $1 million to replace the district’s decades-old Braves mascot, a cost they insist the state legislature should bear, rather than local taxpayers.