Central High School varsity basketball players wait to warm up on the court below the Grand Junction school's newly-unveiled mascot of a shield bearing the letter "C" on the main's gym wall Thursday, Jan. 6, ahead of their game against Heritage High School. The school's old mascot of a Native American Warrior still adorns the team's water cooler by the bench. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A lower Arkansas River Valley school that dropped its Native American mascot in response to a new state law banning their use remains on a list of noncompliant schools that face hefty fines.

In early December, a state board declined to remove Avondale Elementary School from a list of 26 schools that have failed to comply with Senate Bill 116. That leaves it open to being fined $25,000 a month beginning June 1. 

While the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs board has meetings in March and May at which it could reverse that decision, its vote to keep the school on the list of noncompliant schools led to confusion and underscored questions from schools and districts that have dogged the board overseeing implementation of the law. 

“What just happened?” asked Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, during scheduled public comment, which came immediately after the mascot law agenda item. “They were denied?”

Murphy told the CCIA board that schools and districts are working to comply with the law but are being stymied by a lack of communication and direction.

“We need more guidance to get this done by the (June 1) deadline,” she said.

So far, that guidance has come in the form of a one-page document posted on the CCIA website. It says districts must submit “information and documentation” such as school board minutes, renovation plans and contracts and should include a timeline and completion date. It also says schools should share whether a replacement mascot has been selected.

Ahead of the Dec. 9 quarterly meeting of the commission board, Pueblo County School District 70 sent minutes from the June 15 meeting where the Avondale mascot was changed from the Apaches to the Allstars. It also shared links to the school website. 

Two other districts – Campo and Yuma – also sent documents regarding mascot changes to CCIA, but the agency refused to share the documents included in the board packets.

The Pueblo district didn’t hear anything from CCIA after the board took no action to remove Avondale from the list of noncompliant schools, Deputy Superintendent Ginger Andenucio said in an email. The district believes it is in compliance with the law and resubmitted documents to CCIA on Jan. 3, asking again to be removed from the list.

The Campo schools are part of the South Baca County Patriots co-op for sports and  eliminated all images of Native warriors from its schools, Superintendent Nikki Johnson said in an October email. Last week, she said she had heard nothing from the CCIA and speculated that perhaps the minutes they sent weren’t detailed enough.

“The board has not decided what they will do for a school mascot yet,” she said in a Dec. 28 email. “For nearly everything we are the Patriots, so the board didn’t think there was a hurry to decide on a new school mascot.”

The Yuma district was apparently seeking guidance from CCIA on whether a Tribes nickname with no Native American imagery would be acceptable, just as the Lamar district in September asked if it would be allowed to retain the Savages nickname with no Native American mascots or imagery.

The documents submitted were briefly outlined by CCIA Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse at the Zoom meeting but there was no discussion and no questions from the board, other than about the location of the Campo District, which is in Baca County.

When she asked for motions to add or remove schools from the list she was met with silence. 

Then the board voted without discussion to re-ratify the list of 26 schools that are not in compliance with the law.

Board member Lucille Echohawk then asked if the board in the future could get a staff recommendation before voting on the list. Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, who presides over the board, responded by asking if the board wanted to go into executive session.

No one responded. 

The law and the legal fight

Some districts have said they had productive discussions with Redhorse soon after the law was adopted, but others said they’ve had little communication. And what there was seemed to have stopped abruptly in early November after a lawsuit was filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation in an attempt to overturn the law. 

The plaintiffs include four people with ties to the Yuma school, a Lamar High School graduate and the Native American Guardians Association.

A Nov. 9 meeting that was scheduled with some school districts to discuss their plans for changes, including Lamar and Yuma, was canceled and replaced by an executive session by the CCIA board to discuss the lawsuit, according to the CCIA website and Yuma school board minutes.

The entrance to Savage Stadium, where the Lamar Savages football team plays its home games, is shown in this July 15, 2021, photo. A recently enacted Colorado law will prohibit the use of American Indian mascots by public schools beginning in June 2022. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The CCIA board held a second executive session Friday to discuss the lawsuit and get legal advice about implementation of the law, according to an agenda

A motion in U.S. District Court in Colorado for an injunction to keep the law from being enforced was denied by Judge Regina Rodriguez, but Mountain States has appealed that decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. All arguments concerning the appeal should be filed by this week, and Mountain States Attorney William Trachman said he expects a speedy decision. 

The foundation is trying to keep the law from being enforced until the case on the constitutionality of the law can be heard because it is expensive for schools to change mascots.    

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office argued against the preliminary injunction, saying the plaintiffs did not have standing because they would not suffer harm from the law. No schools or districts are party to the lawsuit.

It also suggests in its opposition to the injunction that the challenge to the law’s constitutionality will likely fail because governments can regulate speech of subordinate entities such as public schools.

Changes take time, money

Most districts are moving ahead with required changes regardless of the lawsuit.

Lanc Selldon, principal of Central High School in Grand Junction, said some community members suggested waiting to see if the law was overturned before the school adopted a new mascot, but the prevailing belief was that it was time to move forward.

The school is keeping its Warrior nickname but is in the process of eliminating all Native American imagery associated with it.

The new Warrior shield with a C on it was unveiled Tuesday at a school assembly. They discussed a shield with a spear, but decided not to use any weapons.

Selldon said most Native American symbols and Indian heads have been painted over or removed, but the school still must refinish the gym floor and contend with a large marble wall in front of the school with an Indian head etched into it. The wall also has plaques of school donors on it, so he doesn’t want to tear down the whole thing.

“I have no clue what I’m going to do with it,” Selldon said. “I don’t know if I have the money.”

Most of the work is being done in-house to save money, and that’s the plan for the gym floor as well. School ends May 20 and Selldon said it will take four to six weeks to refinish the floor. He said he hopes the school will be in compliance with the law with that plan, but he hasn’t gotten that reassurance from the CCIA board.

“We’ve gotten no guidance on what we need to provide,” he said.

Players from Central High School and Heritage High School race down the court and over a symbol with Native American imagery embedded in the Grand Junction school’s gym floor on Jan. 6. The school still must refinish the gym floor to comply with state law. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s that lack of communication that has Murphy frustrated.

“CCIA was very engaged at the outset,” she said. “Something seems to have shifted.”

She didn’t want to speculate that the lawsuit has caused the issue but noted that communication stopped about the time the suit was filed.

Murphy said she wasn’t aware of any district not taking steps to make the required changes, but said there are a lot of questions about the process and the deadline.

Because of supply and labor shortages, some schools are worried that they won’t be able to complete all the work by June 1 and would like assurance that they won’t be fined if work is underway, she said.

The CCIA scheduled a special Zoom meeting for Jan. 12, and while no agenda has been posted Lamar Superintendent Chad Krug said his district was invited to make a 20-minute presentation at that meeting. 

Krug said he’s also frustrated because the invitation had new guidance, including tying the name to historical use and whether the “general public associates” the proposed name with American Indians or tribal nations. That language is not in the law.

Krug said the district since September has sought a discussion with CCIA about retaining the Savages nickname without reference to Native Americans. He isn’t sure what a presentation should entail or whether the district will make one. He expects that decision to be made at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

“Again, it would be nice to know some framework, get some yeses or some nos,” he said. “No one likes playing when the rules change.”

Meanwhile, the district is proceeding with its timeline of appointing a mascot committee this month and Krug said its goal is to abide by the law and do what’s best for students.

Questions about the purpose of the Jan. 12 meeting and about compliance guidance were all answered by the lieutenant governor’s press office Dec. 29 with a blanket statement: “We do not comment on pending litigation.”

When pressed that the questions did not relate to the lawsuit, the office on Dec. 30 said it was working with the Attorney General’s Office to provide some information, which was promised Dec. 31 and then Jan. 3. It has not been forthcoming. 

The CCIA board has two more quarterly meetings, in March and May, at which it can remove schools from the list before the June 1 deadline.

Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, who sponsored the bill, isn’t sympathetic to the “we can’t get it done” argument and wondered why the districts had questions. The law is clear, she said.

The law says Native American imagery and mascots must be gone by June 1, even if that means painting over a gym floor or sanding a face from a marble wall. The issue came up during debate on the bill and the legislators decided it was a slippery slope to give schools extensions if work had started.

“They have a deadline to remove it and they’re making their choices,” she said. “I have no sympathy for a school that hasn’t done it in a year.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.