Faced with a new state law requiring the elimination of most American Indian mascots, a handful of Colorado schools are delving into their histories and having community-wide discussions about what a nickname, mascot or logo should represent.
In Lamar, that means sticking by its Savages nickname, even if images and logos must be changed. And while the Lamar school board said at a community meeting Thursday that it won’t join or pitch in money for a lawsuit being prepared to try to overturn the new law, it supports the effort by the Native American Guardians Association.
Demetrius Marez, a 1993 Lamar High School graduate who claims 39% Navajo ancestry, announced at the meeting that he is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, and 1990 grad Cade Spitz unfurled new Savages yard flags outside the meeting that he sold for $20 each to raise money for NAGA’s legal fight. Spitz said he’d sold 127 flags in the first 24 hours they were available, and that he also will have stick-in-the-ground signs and would make banners to order.
“This is my heritage that some people are trying to erase,” Marez said. “It is not derogatory in this context. This Savage means a lot to me because I am Native — don’t tell me what I’m offended by.”
While North Dakota-based NAGA has battled against – and in some cases defeated – local school boards in other states that have pushed for name changes, this lawsuit will be the first against a state law, said Scott Cousins, a Delaware lawyer who represents the nonprofit. He said he expects to file the lawsuit, which could be precedent setting, this summer.
The mascot issue has long raised emotional and defiant responses, but many districts and schools are using the decades-long discussions and the state mandate as an opportunity to reinvent their logos and images in a spirit of collaboration and inclusion.
“What was OK in the ‘60s wasn’t OK in the ‘80s, and what was OK in the ‘80s is not OK in 2022,” said Lanc Selldon, principal at Central High School in Grand Junction, as he explained the changes to his school’s Warrior symbols over the years. “We are working to keep traditions that are great but trying to move forward with the times.”
The law is a significant nudge from the state: Any public schools or colleges that violate the law by their use of an American Indian mascot or imagery as of June 1, 2022, will be fined $25,000 a month.
Sponsors and backers of Senate Bill 116, signed into law June 28, say no one should be surprised by the tough penalties. Native American tribes and activists have been asking school and professional teams for decades to lose their Indian mascots.
Some did. Others swapped out stereotypical cartoonish mascots for more dignified mascots and logos to convey respect, but spectators at games often continued to wear Native costumes and perform such things as the tomahawk chop in the name of team spirit. Not all Native Americans find the mascots or actions offensive, but many tribes associated with Colorado, including the Southern Utes, the Ute Mountain Utes and the Northern Arapahos, supported Colorado’s legislative action, as have tribes in other states.
Studies over the decades have supported the idea that Native American mascots are harmful, contributing to low self-esteem among Indigenous students and the perpetuation of stereotypes among non-Natives, among other things.
“I know people feel this is a mandate and it was forced on them, and it is a mandate, but this is something that people have been asking for for 30 years,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, a sponsor of the bill. “I don’t think this was a surprise to anybody, and I am not open to giving them more time to do this. I think a year is enough time.”
Benavidez and other supporters of the law have little sympathy for the schools now complaining about the cost, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars if gym floors must be refinished and uniforms replaced.
“I don’t know what funding is out there for them, but the cost of how it’s hurt our children over the decades far outweighs their cost,” said Danielle SeeWalker, co-chair of the Denver American Indian Commission. “They could have financially relieved themselves little by little if they had started years ago.
“The emotional impact – you can’t put a cost on that,” she said.
Just over a dozen districts – each with one or more schools affected – are likely required to make changes.
In 2016, a report from the Governor’s Commission to Study American Indian Representation in Public Schools identified 30 schools with Native mascots and urged them to change. A couple of schools on the list have since closed.
Four schools changed their mascots in the past year: Loveland High School (Indians to Red Wolves); Bill Reed Middle School in Loveland (Warriors to Wolves); Cheyenne Mountain High School (Indians to Red-tail Hawks), and La Veta Junior/Senior High School (Redskins to Redhawks).
A new list of those not in compliance with the law will be posted by July 28 at the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs website, along with criteria for compliance, said Elizabeth Kosar, deputy press secretary for the governor.
Several districts said they are awaiting that guidance, fearing it may impact decisions they’ve already made.
Eaton Superintendent Jay Tapia said he met Tuesday with the commission’s Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse and other state officials to discuss his district’s Fightin’ Reds nickname.
Eaton School District Re-2 began a rebranding campaign a year ago in conjunction with plans for a new high school and remodeling at all its schools, and several new mascots and logos were proposed by students.
Likewise, the La Veta School District acted proactively when, after weeks of discussion and surveys, it chose its new Redhawks mascot last year so it could be incorporated into its new school, set to open in January after COVID-related construction delays, according to Superintendent Bree Jones.
Ultimately, the Eaton district board in November decided to drop all American Indian imagery and symbols but retain its Fightin’ Reds nickname, which was adopted in 1901 based on the uniform color (much like the Cincinnati Reds). According to district history, there was no association of the Reds nickname with Native American culture until the 1960s, when the high school consolidated with Galeton High School, which had an Indian mascot.
The district redesigned its red E logo and it has been incorporated throughout the schools and on the website.
According to the minutes of an April board meeting, the district believes it has complied with the state law.
But after meeting with Redhorse, Tapia said he’s not sure if the Fightin’ part of Fightin’ Reds will be OK.
“Now we’re getting stuck on that word, which I didn’t expect,” he said, noting that Redhorse told him the district had used Native American imagery for more years than they had not, and that would be a consideration in whether Fightin’ Reds might be too closely associated with that imagery.
Regardless of the extent of change, it will take a few years for the culture to shift, Tapia said, and he can’t ban alumni and parents from wearing old school T-shirts with Native American symbols on them.
“We’re trying to get back to our roots and back to where we came from,” he said. “And I’m trying to wrap my head around where this is going to end.”
If a school’s nickname is required to change because of past association with Native American symbols, the four schools that have decided to retain Warrior nicknames might not be able to do so.
Two – West Complex in Colorado Springs and Central High School in Grand Junction – are disassociating any Native symbolism from the name.
Central High School Principal Selldon said the law, community conversations and some research led him to focus on how they could make the school mascot more inclusive.
In 1946, Fruitvale High School was consolidated with Central – and Fruitvale had used the Vikings. So, he thought, maybe a Viking warrior. Or not.
“How does a 6-foot-5 Viking male symbol relate to our girls’ soccer team?” he said. “It doesn’t.”
Keeping the Warrior nickname helped cool opposition to change, and he’s received about 30 mascot concept designs as well as plenty of written suggestions.
In fact, local businesses are offering help with in-kind donations of goods and services when it comes time to make physical changes. Selldon isn’t sure of the total cost – or even how they’ll get native symbols that are etched into granite removed.
He estimated changes will run at least $150,000, with refinishing two gym floors the biggest cost.
Meanwhile, he wants to have three mascot options ready to present to the school community by mid-fall.
The small Weldon Valley School District, near Fort Morgan, uses a W with a spear through it for its logo, but has no specific American Indian imagery or mascot, said
Superintendent Ben Bauman. At one time, the district had an Indian head symbol but it has been gone for several years, he said.
“We are waiting to have a conversation with someone about what we need to change, if anything,” said Bauman, who has been with the district for three years and took over July 1 as the superintendent.
He said he doesn’t believe the word “warrior” must be associated with American Indians, as it is used in many cultures and in fiction.
Others planning to retain the name agreed and noted that younger students associate it with video games and movie characters.
Frederick High School in the St. Vrain Valley School District also used the Warrior nickname and associated Native American imagery. Outgoing Principal Brian Young told the school community in April that it would likely need to make changes.
The new principal, Russell Fox, has convened a “task force that includes students, teachers, staff, community members and municipal leaders to guide the mascot identification process,” district spokeswoman Kerri McDermid said.
Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, said she believes that schools that get rid of Indigenous imagery, especially anything stereotypical, and ensure that bleacher rituals, such as headdresses and war whoops, are not allowed at games can probably keep such nicknames as the Warriors or Reds and be within the spirit of the law.
SeeWalker was more skeptical, saying that she hopes schools are genuine in their efforts to refocus mascots and nicknames away from Native culture.
“They might change the visual of it, but the connotation of how you’ve used it over the years remains,” she said. “I would like to see them start fresh.”
Lamar school board members at Thursday’s meeting put the issue squarely at the feet of those who wrote and adopted the new law, calling it an unfunded mandate that oversteps local control and the First Amendment.
It plans to continue using the Savages nickname this school year and wait to see what happens with the NAGA lawsuit. If the law is not overturned by Jan. 19, the district will proceed to change what is required so it will not incur fines.
But the board wants to keep the Savages nickname.
About 150 people attended Thursday’s meeting and nearly all speakers also said they want the district to retain the Savages nickname, even if imagery must be replaced. A few urged the board to join the NAGA lawsuit, and former Lamar High School Principal Allan Medina suggested using the district contingency fund in the legal battle.
“I’m disappointed that this board is not willing to fight,” he said.
Later in the evening, a teacher reminded the group that this district has had to make cuts to educational programs and said she would be insulted if money was spent on the lawsuit when teachers are buying their own classroom supplies.
Board members agreed that the district could not afford the legal fight.
“We don’t know how long litigation would take, said board member Jake Chamberlain. “The unknowns are too much for us to be playing with.”
Several speakers urged others to dip into their own pockets to support NAGA’s lawsuit – through fundraising efforts by the Noble Savages (which has a private Facebook group with 1,300 members) or with contributions directly to NAGA.
NAGA has been a controversial player in the mascot fight nationwide, with many people saying the organization is not representative of most tribes. Its most recent victory was in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, where, in conjunction with the school district, it won on appeal for the school to keep its Redskins moniker.
The district spent about $500,000 in the eight-year legal battle, according to LevittownNow.com.
One member of LamarProud, an alumni group that supports the new state law, said at Thursday’s meeting that when he was a student he didn’t believe the mascot was derogatory but has come to change his mind. Brent Bates said he recognized that it was an emotional issue for many and asked for people to “show each other compassion.”
He also suggested Dust Devil as a new mascot, the only suggestion toward change during the evening, although the board had asked for ideas on moving forward.
Several current underclass students also spoke, saying they were saddened at the thought that they might not be able to graduate as Savages.
A potential change of the school’s nickname and imagery also raises issues for the city of Lamar, which owns the Community Center with the school gym and maintains Savage Avenue (the road to the high school) and several class sculptures depicting Native Americans in the median.
Mayor Kirk Crespin said in recent years he has reached out unsuccessfully to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in an effort to build a bridge for cultural education and communication.
The city has remained neutral on the issue, but estimates that it would cost $225,000 to refinish the gym floor and replace logos throughout the community building.
“There is currently no obligation for the city to make these investments and we simply do not have the funding for those changes at this time,” he said in an email.
“We have various locations throughout our community that showcases local artists,” he continued. “We have made great investments in our Bi-Centennial Park, our downtown pocket park and our Lamar Loop to help showcase different pieces of art. The center median on Savage Avenue has also been a great location for our young local student artists to showcase their artwork and we will continue to support our communities youth and their artwork on the center median of Savage Avenue, now and in the future.”
There are a few exemptions in the law, including for schools on Indian lands and under tribal control.
Arapahoe High School in Littleton will retain its Warrior nickname and Indian mascot, which the new law allows because the school has a long-standing agreement with the Arapaho Nation.
“The Arapaho Nation from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming and the Arapahoe High School community formed a relationship nearly 30 years ago that set a precedent and provided a positive solution in the midst of mascot controversy,” Diane Leiker, spokeswoman for Littleton Public Schools, said in an email. “Tribal elders worked with Arapahoe High School administration and student council to create a wonderful, unique relationship between the Arapaho Tribal Nation and our high school. The Arapahoe Warrior logo — which was designed by a Northern Arapaho artist — demonstrates the decades-long relationship between the two communities that runs far deeper than the creation of the Arapahoe Warrior logo.”
The new law allows exemptions for schools with existing tribal associations.
The Strasburg School District, too, has an agreement with the Northern Arapaho Tribe and plans to retain its Indians mascot, Strasburg High School Principal Jeff Rasp said in an email.
The district and the tribe signed an agreement in the 2015-16 school year, and a tribal member designed a new mascot for the school. Rasp said he hopes to sign an updated agreement this year.
At least five districts are working on making changes; five others (Pueblo County, Kiowa, Yuma, Mountain Valley in Saguache and Campo) did not respond to email or voicemail messages and have no obvious notices on their websites about changes.
Montrose County School District Superintendent Carrie Stephenson said early estimates show it could cost $500,000 to $750,000 to replace everything carrying Native symbols, including two gym floors, gym mats and uniforms.
“We are ready to comply,” she said, “but it’s going to be a financial burden.”
She has directed the middle and high school principals to do a detailed assessment of everything that must be changed so they can have a solid cost estimate. Centennial Middle School uses the Braves nickname, and Montrose High School uses the Indians.
This fall, the district will begin a collaborative process involving students, staff and the community to decide on new mascots and logos.
The high school uses an M with feathers attached, which might work as a logo if the school opts for a bird mascot, she said.
In recent years, the schools made some changes as they ordered new uniforms and mats, leaving logos off. But those were incremental purchases, she said.
Other districts also are concerned about the cost, but estimates are generally lower.
Sanford School District Superintendent Kevin Edgar said in an email that the southern San Luis Valley district estimates it will cost $150,000 for physical changes, including: removal of a ceramic Indian inlaid in the brick of the main entrance; removal of Indians stained into two gym floors; removal of an Indian mural, rendered in stained glass; removal and replacement of cafeteria flooring that contains the mascot in the center; removal of the large painted mascot on the main gym wall; replacing safety and wrestling mats; removal of the mascot from scoreboards and marquee; removal of the mascot from athletic banners and uniforms; removal of the word “Indians” from buses and transportation vehicles; and the cost to put the new mascot image in all the places were the old mascot was removed.
Edgar said the board has begun a process to select a new mascot, and a committee will be formed in August. The community and students will be involved in suggesting mascots, and the committee will narrow the choices to three. Then, after more community input, it will make a recommendation to the board.
The tiny Arickaree School District in northeast Colorado uses the Indian nickname and is exploring its options under the law, said Superintendent Lisa Weigel, who started with the district this month. She is planning community conversations and hopes to have a recommendation to the board by November.
“You want to appreciate the traditions and culture of the community and the history that goes along with it, but if we are required to make a change we are,” she said. “But we want to do that collaboratively.”
She noted that she moved from a district in Wyoming, where the same conversations are taking place.
Several of those interviewed noted that it’s not a mascot that holds a community together, and they are stressing that in their conversations.
“It is our sense of community in supporting our students that brings us all together and keeps our school spirit alive,” Edgar said in a letter to the community posted this month on the Sanford website. “Whatever is chosen as our new mascot, our school spirit and community support will no doubt continue to be strong and live up to the wonderful history of our school and community.”
Which schools are -or are not – tackling the issue
Senate Bill 116 was signed into law on June 28, which set the clock running to a June 1, 2022, deadline for Colorado public schools and colleges to stop the use of American Indian mascot or imagery. Violators could face a $25,000 per month fine. Some schools have already rebranded or are in the process. Others did not return The Sun’s call to find out where they stand.
Schools that changed mascots before the bill passed:
Loveland High School: Indians to Red Wolves
Bill Reed Middle School, Loveland: Warriors to Wolves
Cheyenne Mountain High School: Indians to Red-tail Hawks
La Veta Junior Senior High School: Redskins to Redhawks
Eaton schools: dropped Native imagery, kept Reds, which historically referred to uniform color
Keeping Warrior name
West Complex in Colorado Springs (middle grades): no mascot
Central High School, Grand Junction: process underway to change mascot
Weldon Valley schools: no Native imagery; awaiting clarification on whether it’s logo, a W with a spear, is allowed
Tribal agreements to retain names and imagery
Arapahoe High School: Warriors
Strasburg schools: Indians
Montrose schools: middle school – Braves; high school – Indians
Sanford schools: Indians
Frederick High School: Warriors
Avondale Elementary, Pueblo: Apache Indians
Kiowa schools: Indians
Yuma schools: Indians
Mountain Valley School District, Saguache: Indians
Campo School: listed by state as Warriors, but they are part of the South Baca Patriots co-op for athletics
The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.
This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.