COLORADO SPRINGS — When Stephanie Jerome and her family moved a year ago to Colorado Springs, she took her daughter to the Cheyenne Mountain School District office to enroll her in fifth grade.
There they learned that the district’s high school sports teams were called Indians. And so she enrolled her daughter in an online Denver Public Schools program instead of the school in her southwest Colorado Springs neighborhood.
This week, Jerome and her daughter, Jeanvieve, tearfully hugged outside those district offices after the school board voted 4-1 to retire the divisive mascot.
For them, this particular fight was relatively short, although Jerome has always been active in efforts to protect and preserve Indigenous culture.
“You can’t not be an activist when you’re native,” said Jerome, who grew up on a reservation in North Dakota. “We have to always speak up.”
Many others among the dozen or so Native Americans who gathered in the chilly parking lot outside during the school board meeting Monday night have been demanding such change for decades. (Meeting attendance was limited because of coronavirus restrictions; the meetings are live-streamed and people can speak remotely.)
“Most of us here have been protesting mascots since we were teenagers,” said Monycka Snowbird of the Pikes Peak Indigenous Women’s Alliance. “Now I’m bringing my grandson to these events. It’s 30 or more years for some of us.”
They mark their intermittent triumphs by the decade: the Palmer High School Terrors changed their Eaglebeak mascot from a caricature of an Indian to an actual eagle in the ‘80s; in 1995, the University of Southern Colorado changed its Indians mascot to the ThunderHawks.
And there still are 24 Colorado K-12 schools with native mascots.
Now, though, the proponents for changing them are bolstered by two things: a broadening social justice movement ignited a year ago by the Black Lives Matter protests and a bill introduced last month in the Colorado Senate that would impose a $25,000 per month fine on schools that refuse to abandon derogatory American Indian symbols. Senate Bill 116 is expected to have its first hearing before the Senate Education Committee on April 1, said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and one of the bill’s prime sponsors.
Danielson said two things led her to bring the bill forward: last year’s nationwide demands for social justice; and the fact that in the five years since a state governor’s commission recommended eliminating Native American mascots at 25 schools, only two – until Cheyenne Mountain’s action this week – had done so.
The Thompson School District voted in September to eliminate the Indians mascot at Loveland High School and the Warriors mascot at Bill Reed Middle School.
“I think we have to take action to end these mascots,” Danielson said. Schools with native mascots would have until June 1, 2022, to replace them. A similar measure failed in the legislature in 2015.
As pressure to change increases, some districts have tried to forge relationships with native tribes and get their “permission” to retain a mascot. Danielson said she’s aware of these efforts and is working closely with tribes on how her bill would impact such relationships.
For example, the Northern Arapaho have for years collaborated with Arapahoe and Strasburg high schools on curriculum and cultural exchanges with an understanding that the schools would retain their Indian mascots.
At the request of alumni, tribal representatives met Monday with Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper about forging a relationship regardless of how the board voted on the mascot issue.
Proponents of change agree that financial pressure, such as the fine proposed in Danielson’s bill, is effective. The Washington Redskins in July became the Washington Football Team just 12 days after investors pressured Nike, Pepsi and FedEx to end their sponsorships of the team.
“The bill has language that people understand,” said artist Gregg Deal, who was on the frontlines of the fight in Washington, D.C., for 17 years and who shifted his attention to Colorado when he moved to El Paso County five years ago. “Money is the first language that many understand.”
Usually the fight to retain American Indian mascots is led by alumni who say their schools chose them to honor and preserve the memory of tribes. They mean no disrespect, they say, and the mascots are a source of school and community pride.
Deal said it is difficult to convince mascot defenders that the symbols promote racist stereotypes and are harmful not only to Indigenous people, but to others who carry those stereotypes into adulthood.
“When you say the mascots are inappropriate or racist, you are telling the people who want to keep them that they are inappropriate or racist,” Deal said. “And they dig their heels in.
“It’s often a matter of pride,” he said. “Nobody wants to be told that they’re wrong.”
It’s hard to argue the mascots are a show of respect when non-native students show up at sports events wearing headdresses and war paint and opposing team supporters yell such things as “scalp the Indians,” proponents of removing mascots say.
In fact, girls at Cheyenne Mountain were dressing in native costumes and painting their faces red to dance at games in the 1960s, a time when Indigenous people were forbidden by law from wearing some regalia or performing some ceremonies, said Paige Wood Reilly, a 2007 Cheyenne Mountain grad. These bans were not overturned until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Cooper told the board that when the district banned students from dressing up in native costume and doing the tomahawk “chop” at games, he heard complaints about it not being fun anymore.
“This has become a very divisive and very controversial issue in our community,” he told the board Monday, noting that he’s heard from families in which the parents are alums who want to keep the mascot and their children, who are students in the district, want it changed.
The board’s resolution noted that there was no consensus on the issue among alumni, students or the community, and called for the creation of a new commission to consider the role of mascots and to choose a new one for Cheyenne Mountain High School by the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.
Their decision was based on the evidence of harm from some mascots as cited by mental health organizations and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the requests from sovereign tribes.
There is plenty of evidence, collected over decades, that Native American mascots are harmful. Studies show they contribute to low self-esteem among Indigenous students and promote stereotypes among non-natives, among other things.
That is the kind of information that Reilly gathered when she moved back to Colorado Springs last year and created an alumni group to push for the mascot change.
In August, her group presented a binder full of educational information, citations for studies and letters from American Indian tribes and business councils asking for the removal of all native symbols and mascots. She later provided more electronically.
Education is the tactic, too, of an alumni group in Lamar that wants to see the school drop its Savages mascot.
Jacob Reed, a 2012 Lamar grad who lives in Austin, Texas, said the Lamar Proud group trying to change the mascot has steadily gained support over the past year. It has worked to elevate native voices that have long been ignored in the fight.
“More and more people are coming to the realization that this is a racist mascot,” he said. “I didn’t expect to do this. I have posed this question to natives along the way: Is this something we need to tackle? The answer is always yes. It’s systemic racism. If we can’t organize and change a mascot, how can we solve the bigger issues?”
Danielle SeeWalker, chair of the Denver American Indian Commission, concurs.
Today’s mascots are tied to all the bigger issues, such as colonization and cultural genocide, she said. Most people know little Native American history and often can’t comprehend the arguments made against derogatory mascots.
“People who are stuck on this issue, who believe these mascots are a sign of respect, need to educate themselves on it and understand from an Indigenous perspective,” she said. “White privilege is a real thing.”