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A rendering of the Lamar High School mascot, The Savage Chief, by members of the class of 1984 is displayed in in one of the school’s hallways July 15, 2021. Colorado Senate Bill 116 prohibits the use of American Indian symbols and names by Colorado public schools beginning in June 2022.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado schools that keep their American Indian mascots after June 1 are supposed to face a $25,000 monthly fine under a law passed last year. 

But there’s a big catch: There’s no agency empowered to collect the money. 

“No one has the authority,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat and prime sponsor of the 2021 law, Senate Bill 116

Lawmakers considered closing the loophole this year in a school finance bill that recently passed the legislature. But they didn’t, and the issue is instead likely to be addressed when lawmakers convene again next year making it unclear if violators will face penalties in the near-term. 

Some two dozen schools were told by the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to jettison mascots that appropriate American Indian imagery under the 2021 law, sponsored by Benavidez, Democratic state Sen. Jessie Danielson and Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan. Those schools are supposed to start sending $25,000-a-month fines to the state Treasury Department if they haven’t changed their mascots by June. 

No schools reached by The Colorado Sun that could be subject to the penalties said they planned to remit their fines. 

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office, which answers questions for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs since it oversees the panel, said the commission is responsible for telling schools that they are out of compliance and owe money to the Colorado Treasury Department.  

The Colorado Department of Education says it, too, doesn’t have the power to enforce the fines.

“It’s our understanding that the sponsor of the legislation intends to take this issue up during the next legislative session,” Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for the education department, said in an email. That will “provide clarity around which state entity is responsible for collecting the fines.”

McLachlan, one of the 2021 bill sponsors, said, “I think we were kind of hoping we wouldn’t collect any money — that it would be a big enough threat to just change the mascot or cover it up.” 

There are two federally recognized tribes in Colorado now, the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes, in southwest Colorado.

Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said he doesn’t think his tribe is interested in fining or punishing anyone. The tribe just wants the mascots removed or for the schools to work with a tribe to find a solution as the 2021 legislation suggests, he said. 

“The longer the offending mascots remain in place, the more likely it is that a Native person will be subject to offensive performances about their own people and heritage, will be subject to objectification by those who do not understand Native culture and practices, and suffer the effects of social abandonment and the low self-esteem that results from it,” Ortego said.

At least 21 states or education boards have introduced similar efforts to eliminate mascots appropriating Native American imagery, said Ashley Cordes, an assistant professor of Indigenous communication at the University of Utah. 

Research shows that the use of such mascots undermines the self-esteem and mental health of Native students, and can exacerbate prejudice or discrimination against Native people by increasing the likelihood that others will stereotype them as aggressive, as savages or as primitive, said Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Michigan professor who has researched indigenous issues.

Those can include mascots drawing on “ahistorical aspects of Native Americanness such as feathers, headdresses, and Tribal prints” that evoke “characters like Pocahontas or large nose caricatures of Chief Wahoo,” Cordes said. 

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs last year identified about two dozen schools that had to change their mascots, including the Lamar High School “Savages” and the Yuma Middle School “Indians.” A dozen had not rid their campus of the mascots as of March, and could face monthly fines starting in June if they still haven’t covered up trophies, gym floors and other places with imagery of the mascots. 

In April, the commission signaled it might add Thunderbirds to its list of derogatory mascots — leaving another seven public schools unsure if they will need to jettison their mascots before June. The commission is set to decide whether to add Thunderbirds to its list at a meeting on May 19, though those schools will receive a one-year delay before fines kick in. 

Schools previously told to replace their mascots said they had recently done so and expected the commission would clear them before they could be on the hook for fines. 

The Montrose High School Indians, for example, have become the Red Hawks. 

Centennial Middle School switched to the Bears from the Braves.

Montrose County School District’s elementary school was recently told it had to get rid of its Thunderbirds mascot, a reference to a mythical bird with tribal significance. The district appealed the decision but was unsuccessful and is getting rid of the Thunderbird imagery, said Matt Jenkins, a spokesman for Montrose County School District, one of the largest rural districts in the state. 

Several small and rural districts said removing the imagery was expensive. 

In Montrose, Jenkins said the district of around 6,000 students thought the high school would be able to keep using an image of a feather after their mascot switched to the Red Hawks. The commission said no. That increased the cost of removing mascot imagery to more than $500,000 from an expected $300,000, Jenkins said. 

Mountain Valley School spent about a year redoing its gym floor, replacing seat backs and uniforms, and starting to remove an exterior panel with its former Indians mascot, principal Matt Stalker said. It cost about $100,000 — a significant lift for the school in Saguache, a small town in the San Luis Valley.

“We worked hard to come into compliance because we don’t have $25,000 to give to the state,” Stalker said. The school’s mascot is now the Wolves. 

Arickaree School District R-2 in Anton, a small town on the Eastern Plains, is working on getting rid of images of their elementary and high school mascots, both of which were the Indians. They sent in photos and a timeline of the district’s plan to remove and cover the mascot’s likeness, and expect the commission will review that material at an upcoming meeting. 

“We are very rural in nature — we serve about 110 students pre-school through 12th grade,” said Lisa Weigel, the district’s superintendent. “It is unfortunate that resources to assist schools in making some of these changes (have) not been provided.”

Colorado’s efforts to get rid of the school mascots comes amid a national movement to replace offensive professional sports team names. Washington, D.C.’s football team for instance, recently adopted a new name, the Commanders. Cleveland’s baseball team did the same, becoming the Guardians.

Pushback to the changes are common, and often center on a group of non-Native Americans strongly identifying with the mascot or chafing at the idea of others telling them what mascot they can use, experts said. A North Dakota-based organization, Native American Guardian’s Association, has sued Colorado officials over the law, specifically mentioning the Savages mascot in Lamar, and including among its plaintiffs people affiliated with Yuma High School, where the Indians mascot is being removed. 

“Sometimes these names become appropriated as an identity for the town or the school and then when Native people come and say ‘Well, wait a minute, that’s our name’ … then you have a situation where you have one name, but there’s two different — absolute different — meanings attached to it,” said Sebastian Braun, director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University. 

Pressure from the public, corporate shareholders or from state governments can lead to the removal of mascots, said Andrew Cowell, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado. That saves an individual student from having to speak up against a mascot deemed offensive, potentially stoking “pushback from the community and from your fellow students,” he said. 

“It really shouldn’t be up to up to 16 year olds to speak up on behalf of the entire Native American community,” Cowell said. 

Beyond potential harm to an individual student, maintaining mascots sends a message on a societal level, he said. “That we would find something like that acceptable is, in fact, unacceptable.” 

Some places have tried to eliminate the use of all Native American mascots while others have allowed their continued use if the team consults with the tribe, he said. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, for example, supported Kiowa school district’s use of a Native American mascot, and Arapaho Nation endorsed the use of the Arapahoe Warrior logo at Arapahoe High School, in Centennial, according to a school website.

Ortego, with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said he thinks most schools understand the need to avoid offensive stereotypes of students, races and cultures.

It is “mystifying why schools that hang on to the stereotypes would continue to do so knowing that the impacts of the stereotypes are damaging and victimize groups of people who have suffered victimization for generations upon generations,” he said.

“I would like to think a school would remove these stereotypes without having to be forced to, but I have my doubts.”

The state or the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs could work harder to educate the public about the impacts of Native stereotypes, he said. The legislature could also promote healthy images of Native people, their traditions and their beliefs by highlighting successes, including the voice of Native people in important decisions — including in school curriculum — and promoting tribal interests, he said.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma