A school's mascot is its message to the world. This is who we are.

We are … the Wabasso Rabbits. The Moorhead Spuds. We're the Thunder. We're the Nighthawks. The Hilltoppers, the Mainstreeters, the Hubmen.

Mascots beam from banners and murals and team uniforms. They're woven into every high school memory and yearbook. Alumni wear the name across their sweatshirts, proud to have been one of the Roosevelt High Teddies.

But what if you don't like what your mascot is saying about your school?

For generations, the Raider was the face of school spirit in Northfield, Minn.

The winning student entry in a 1956 mascot design contest, the Raider started out as a leering, cutlass-flailing caricature with slanted eyes and a droopy mustache. Half-pirate, half Mongol warrior, all crude ethnic stereotype.

The district tried to soften the mascot's image over years. But even swapping his sword out for a basketball didn't stop students from dubbing him the Racist Raider.

"It just didn't age well," said Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann. "There was a significant portion of our community that viewed [the Raider] as having accentuated facial features that were really a derogatory representation of Asians."

After 64 years it was time for the Raider to retire, so he went to his rest in May. These days, when the Northfield Raiders run onto the field, they do it with a block letter N on their uniforms.

Now other districts are debating whether to say good riddance to bad mascots.

Minnesota, thousands of whose citizens fought and died to preserve the Union, is home to at least half a dozen high schools with Confederate mascots. One of them, a Rebel in traitor gray, is the face of the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District just east of Moorhead.

"[N]o school district should ever glamorize or trivialize the Confederate States' legacy of slavery and racism by adopting its mascot," began a recent Change.org petition that asked the district to replace the mascot with a symbol that won't dishonor the memory of those who fought in the Civil War and those who have been fighting for civil rights ever since.

The school board took up the mascot discussion in the spring. The Rebel has been around since the 1980s, when the Dilworth Locomotives and the Glyndon-Felton Buffaloes merged into one district in need of a new mascot (even though the name "Buffalocos" was within their grasp).

At the time, the idea of a Rebel mascot in Confederate gray didn't strike anyone as odd or offensive.

But times change. People learn. Where better to learn than at school?

Four hours south in Slayton, Minn., the Murray County school board is facing down a nearly identical Rebel mascot. They've tweaked Rudy the Rebel over the years, trying to rip him from his Confederate roots — giving him a purple suit and hat, trimmed in frontier fringe. That didn't stop fans from merrily waving Confederate flags, dyed purple and Black in a show of school spirit, at their games.

"[T]he board continues to actively evaluate options and details associated with the mascot issue," Board President Dan Woldt wrote in an e-mail last week.

The pandemic and its crushing pressures on students, teachers and families are the priority now, but Woldt added: "We will be revisiting the mascot issue as the time and changing priorities allow."

Maybe the mascot will retire. Maybe board members — as they discussed at a recent meeting — will hire a public relations firm to try to convince everyone that this Rebel mascot is not one of the bad Rebel mascots.

None of this is easy. Northfield found that out during its yearlong search for a replacement mascot.

They worked with design teams to craft a logo that hearkened back to the original Raiders — back to 1876, when Jesse James and his gang tried to hold up First National Bank of Northfield. The bandits didn't expect the ordinary residents of one small Minnesota town to demolish one of the most notorious outlaw gangs in the Wild West.

The proposed mascot logos looked amazing: steely-eyed outlaws in bandannas, galloping toward Northfield and their doom.

But district officials gradually realized that even the coolest-looking logo still depicted a gang of incompetent, murderous thieves.

So Northfield remains the home of the Raiders. But the face they show to the world these days is that big letter N, bright and bold as the defenders of Northfield.

"At the end of the day, we just don't think we could really approve anything that would truly represent the spirit of the school," Hillmann said.

Northfield didn't see a problem with its mascot 65 years ago. They know better now.

"When we know better," Hillmann said, "we do better."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008. Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks.