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Students walk past a silhouette of a Thunderbird on the floor of the gymnasium inside Johnson Elementary School on April 12 2022, in Montrose, Colorado. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A commission that has worked for nearly a year to rid more than two dozen Colorado public schools of American Indian mascots is now targeting seven additional schools as the statewide compliance deadline nears.

All the schools are the Thunderbirds, named after a mythical bird that was important to several tribes.

The action could come on May 19, at the next quarterly meeting of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse said at a meeting on April 6. The commission is charged with enforcing Senate Bill 116, which passed last year and gave schools until June 1 to eliminate American Indian mascots or face fines of $25,000 a month. 

The May meeting is the last chance this year for the 12 schools still on a list released last summer to be removed.

If any schools are added, it would give them less than two weeks to get rid of any imagery of the mascot, which some say is unreasonably short notice. And it’s unclear when they could be removed from the list as CCIA has taken votes to do so only at its quarterly meetings.

“If you’re going to put us on there this late in the day, give us a little time to make the changes,” said David Crews, superintendent of Sangre de Cristo School District in Mosca, which adopted the Thunderbirds mascot when two San Luis Valley districts merged in 1960. “This puts us between a rock and a hard place — we’re not on the list now but do we start making changes? If we don’t respond now and we get on there we don’t have a lot of time for compliance.”

He said he was not notified by CCIA of the April 6 discussion. He said he called Redhorse and officials with the state Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday and was told that the school could do such things as cover up trophies and other memorabilia that have Thunderbird images, remove banners and have students wear uniforms inside out to conceal Thunderbird images. 

Montrose High School varsity football team memorabilia on display in a trophy case at Montrose High School on Monday morning. Schools out of compliance with state law prohibiting the use of Native American imagery have been advised to cover up trophy cases containing objects with the offensive logos. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Adding schools to the list as the deadline approaches is the latest issue that has left schools and districts demanding more communication and guidance from the CCIA.

The governor’s press office, which handles questions for CCIA, did not answer questions about the process, saying that “SB21-116 does not provide guidance for extending the deadline for public schools to come into compliance beyond June 1, 2022. The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs is committed to implementing SB21-116 and partnering with schools to ensure their compliance with the law.”  

Creating a list

The law states that within 30 days of its enactment in June 2021, the CCIA must identify schools using banned American Indian mascots and publish the list on its website. In July, it published a list of more than two dozen schools taken from the 2016 report of the Governor’s Commission to Study American Indian Representation in Public Schools.

The older report identified 30 schools with Native American mascots and urged them to change; a couple schools on the list have since closed and a few changed their mascots before the bill took effect.

The CCIA board voted to approve the list in September, and no schools have been added since then. The bill and compliance guidance adopted by CCIA offers no information on how schools could be added to the list after it was approved.

Students walk between classes at Johnson Elementary School in Montrose on Tuesday morning. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Only one school on the original list, Johnson Elementary School in Montrose, had a Thunderbird mascot.

The district questioned CCIA about inclusion of that mascot last year, and a Montrose Press article in December 2021 questioned why two other schools with Thunderbird mascots, Sangre de Cristo schools and Hinkley High School in Aurora, were not on the list.

The district presented its case to retain the Thunderbird at a January CCIA meeting but received no feedback.

At its March 10 quarterly meeting, the CCIA board declined to remove Johnson Elementary from the list of schools not in compliance with the law and briefly discussed the Sangre de Cristo and Hinkley mascots. However, no motion was made to add those schools to the list.

The board then called a special meeting on April 6 to convene behind closed doors to get legal advice about implementing the law and “what constitutes a prohibited American Indian mascot, and the process for potential updates to the list of public schools that must come in compliance with SB21-116.”

The agenda made no mention of Thunderbirds and several schools with that mascot said they were not notified of the meeting.

After the executive session, the board spent less than 15 minutes running through a list of schools with Thunderbird mascots and reviewed their logos:

  • Johnson Elementary in Montrose, Montrose County School District
  • Hinkley High School in Aurora, Aurora Public Schools
  • Sangre de Cristo Schools in Mosca
  • Thunder Ridge Middle School in Aurora, Cherry Creek School District
  • Cheyenne Mountain Middle School in Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain School District
  • Thunder Mountain Elementary School in Grand Junction, Mesa Valley School District
  • Johnson Elementary in Fort Collins, Poudre School District
  • Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley, Evans-Greeley School District

Redhorse noted that Johnson Elementary in Fort Collins is retiring its Thunderbird mascot at the end of the school year.

Board members commented briefly that the name Thunderbirds and most of the imagery was taken from Native American traditions.

Before the meeting adjourned, Redhorse said a vote would take place at the May 19 meeting on whether schools should be added to the list.

Caught off guard

Districts reached by The Sun said they were unaware that the CCIA was discussing the Thunderbirds as a potential derogatory mascot that would be banned under the law.

Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for Evans-Greeley School District 6, said it was ironic that CCIA was discussing Shawsheen’s mascot on the same day it had a meeting to talk about a new mascot. The school had already decided to eliminate the Thunderbird mascot and has been working through the change since before the law was enacted, she said. 

Cherry Creek spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the district has received no notice from CCIA about Thunder Ridge Middle School’s mascot.

“If we do, we will respond accordingly,” she said.

Mesa Valley School District spokeswoman Emily Shockley said neither the school nor the district had been contacted by CCIA about the Thunderbird mascot at Thunder Valley Elementary. She also said there has not been any discussion within the district about changing it.

There is a large marble wall bearing the Central High School’s old Indian warrior mascot along with donors’ names outside the front doors to the high school in Grand Junction. The school is keeping its Warrior nickname but is in the process of eliminating all Native American imagery associated with it. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The district’s Central High School in Grand Junction was removed from the list in March after removing all Native American imagery associated with its Warrior mascot. A few schools have been allowed to retain the Warrior nickname after disassociating it from Native imagery. Also, the law allows districts with tribal agreements to retain Native American mascots, which is the case with Arapahoe High School in Littleton and the Strasburg School District east of Denver. The Elbert County School District is working on a tribal agreement, but it has not been accepted by CCIA. 

Hinkley High School spokesman Corey Christiansen said Aurora Public Schools has contacted the CCIA with information about its mascot, which it says was named in 1965 after the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. The school has asked to be allowed to retain the mascot, he said.

During the April 6 meeting, board member Nicole Miera pointed out that the Air Force Thunderbird also comes from Native American tradition. The Air Force did not respond to an email query seeking comment.

Crews said he was aware his district’s mascot came up at the March meeting, but when the commissioners did not vote to add it to the list he thought they were in the clear. He received no other communication from CCIA and was unaware of the April 6 meeting.

“If we are on that list, I need to have some clear direction,” he said. “I have to think about funding if we get on this list now. I’m worried about our HVAC system right now. It’s a stretch I think for a lot of small districts.”

Montrose County School District spokesman Matt Jenkins said he was disappointed that CCIA did not notify schools of the April 6 meeting and that it chose not to have an open discussion about the Thunderbird mascot.

“We’ve entered into this process in good faith,” Jenkins said. “We’ve solicited input and guidance from the commission several times and it’s frustrating that we’re not hearing back in a timely manner.”

Lack of discussion

Many involved in the decades long debate over Native American mascots are weary of it and say it’s simply time to make the changes and move on. 

That includes bill sponsor Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Adams County, who has said repeatedly that schools know if their mascot is related to Native American culture and if it is, they must get rid of it.

“It is a mandate, but this is something that people have been asking for for 30 years,” she said shortly after the law was enacted.

Members of the Montrose High School football team take the field against Fruita Monument High School on Sept. 6, 2021. The 2021-22 prep sports seasons at MHS will be the last that the teams will identify as the Indians. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Others say the conversations about derogatory and stereotypical mascots must continue, particularly when, as with Thunderbirds, it doesn’t seem so clear cut.

The Thunderbird is a mythical bird that is part of several indigenous cultures. 

Jacob Price, a counselor at Johnson Elementary in Montrose, does not see the use of the Thunderbird as derogatory and believes its distinction as a mythical creature guards against it being used as a negative stereotype. Price, a member of the Pawnee Nation, said he’s been involved in the fight to eliminate derogatory mascots since he was a student at San Diego State University.

“I’m not aware of the Thunderbird ever coming up in previous work,” he said, noting that real birds such as eagles, owls and hawks are much more significant to many tribes. “I don’t recall it being on any list.

“It would be nice to get a little feedback on their thought process.” 

Jennifer Folsom, a senior instructor at Colorado State University who has studied the mascot issue extensively, said it’s important to recognize that once any animal or object is turned into a mascot it begins to carry stereotypes.

“A mascot is not a true representation of anything,” she said. “It’s all built on stereotypes, and Native American mascots play on existing stereotypes — people of the past with narrow, static roles in the world.”

Any Native American mascot can lead to those stereotypes playing out in fan, student and parent behavior and language, said Folsom, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. That can include such things as yelling “scalp ‘em” and warrior whoops.

That’s a problem for the schools that keep some part of the mascot, such as the Warrior nickname, but change the imagery. If it was related to Native American stereotypes, those will linger regardless of what the school tries to do, she said.

It’s important to keep talking about the perpetuation and impact of stereotypes on both Natives and non-Natives, she said, noting that it’s too often a “super-charged conversation.”

“It is nuanced, it’s complex and it deals with a wide range of historic and ongoing relations and settler-colonization in the Americas,” she said. “That’s a hefty conversation on any given day.”

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