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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)

Lamar High School cannot use the term “Savage” in any form in its school mascot name. Not Savages. Not Savage Thunder.

That was the decision Thursday of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, which added 10 more schools — all with Thunderbird mascots — to a list of those not in compliance with a state law banning most Native American mascots.

The Lamar School Board, meeting in a special session at the same time, listened to the CCIA board remarks, heard the rejection of its proposed nicknames, and adopted Plan C: Lamar Thunder.

The Lamar board’s resolution showed up in the chat section of the CCIA commission’s Zoom meeting. Then, during public comment at the end of the meeting Superintendent Chad Krug told the commissioners the word Savage had been dropped and asked them to take another vote.

They did not.

They told Krug to work with CCIA staff and adjourned the meeting.

Whether that leaves Lamar facing a fine of $25,000 a month beginning June 1 is unclear. The district presented evidence to the commission in April that it had eliminated most Native American imagery from the school and designed a new logo with a charging buffalo. 

Lamar High School designed logos incorporating the word savage in its new mascot name, but dropped the offensive word after the Commission of Indian Affairs said it was out of compliance with state law.

The penalty, though, may be more of a threat than a reality as the law includes no enforcement provisions, and no agency is taking responsibility for collecting fines. Also, the law states that the penalty is for “continued use” and makes no mention of a compliance list being used to determine fines.

Krug said he doesn’t want it to become a legal fight because he believes the district has complied with the law.

“Are we concerned about the possibility of a penalty?” he said. “Deep down, absolutely. We absolutely take this seriously. But we thought we were engaging.

“I don’t wish for this to be framed as winners or losers, but as resolution.”

Schools added to the list Thursday may have a year to comply

For the schools that were added to the list this week the process toward resolution is just beginning. They likely will have until June 1, 2023, to comply with the law under provisions of recently passed legislation that is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The commission this week removed 11 schools that had been on the list since its approval in September. Another 11 schools were deemed in March to be obeying the law.

Among those deemed in compliance on Thursday were three schools in Kiowa that will retain their Indian mascot under an agreement with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

The rest of the schools eliminated Native American mascots.

“We’re grateful to reach the conclusion of this compliance process,” said Matt Jenkins, spokesman for the Montrose School District, which had three schools on the list.

Jenkins monitored the CCIA commission meeting through an earphone while watching students do science experiments as part of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) day activities.

“It was good because it reminded me of why I got into this business — we all got into this business to help kids,” he said. “Things come across our plates, like this (law) that we have to deal with, and we do. The spirit of this law is a good one.”

The Montrose Middle School Braves became the Bears and was removed from the list of schools with banned mascots in March. 

The Montrose High School Indians became the Red Hawks but remained on the list while the district and CCIA commission haggled over one logo that showed an M with feathers dangling. That logo was jettisoned and the high school got off the list.

About the Thunderbird schools

The final hurdle for the district was the Thunderbird mascot used by Johnson Elementary School. The district didn’t believe it was derogatory or specific to Native American culture and argued that case. 

The commission disagreed and then discovered 10 other schools with Thunderbird mascots that had been overlooked.

The first suggestion that the commission might add schools to the list of those with banned mascots or logos came at the March 10 meeting when CCIA Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse noted that Hinkley High School in Aurora and the Sangre de Cristo School District used Thunderbird mascots. There was no discussion and no move to add them to the list.

A special meeting on April 6, however, was called specifically to discuss Thunderbird mascots. After waiting 45 minutes to get a quorum, the board spent 34 minutes in executive session and then less than 10 discussing the schools that it later would consider out of compliance with the mascot law.

On April 25, seven districts received notice that they likely were out of compliance with the law and were invited to present information on their mascots at a special meeting on May 2, according to documents released to The Sun under a Colorado Open Records request.

Most of the school representatives said they were surprised by the notice as the Thunderbird mascot had not previously been identified as offensive. They told CCIA commissioners at the special meeting that they would comply but asked for more time.

Cheyenne Mountain School District Superintendent David Peak asked the commissioners for time to engage with the community before making changes, as it had in March 2021 when the high school mascot was changed.

He also noted the cost and time needed to remove Thunderbird images and said the district had quickly reached out to some contractors and learned it could take nine to 12 months to have some work, such as refinishing a gym floor, completed.

His comments were echoed by other school officials, including Sonja McKenzie, legal counsel for Cherry Creek Schools.

After hearing about the discussion that involved Thunder Ridge Middle School in early April, the district told CCIA that it had a second school — Arrowhead Elementary — with a Thunderbird mascot, she said.

“We have no problem embracing this change but we do need time,” she said at the May 2 meeting.

Johnson Elementary in the Poudre School District had gotten wind of its sister school in Montrose being on the non-compliant list and in January began working to rebrand the school as the Huskies.

And Shawsheen Elementary School in Greeley had been working toward change since before the mascot ban was implemented. On Thursday, it announced the new mascot, the Sparrow Hawks, to students and staff. 

But they all went on the list this week. 

“We were never trying to be defiant.”

Krug, the Lamar superintendent, said he hopes the schools newly added to the list take the time needed to work with their communities because the change isn’t easy. 

It took the CCIA commissioners time as well to realize that the districts needed good feedback they could take back to their communities.

“We were never trying to be defiant or game the system,” he said. “We were trying to balance the interests of the community and of the commission.”

Several times the Lamar board arranged a work session or special meeting to coincide with a CCIA commission meeting or presentations so they could listen together and discuss what they were hearing.

But the feedback, Krug and others have said, often came too late in the process.

“Today was some of the clearest feedback we’ve gotten from them,” he said, noting that he had repeatedly discussed that the district wanted to retain the word Savage in some way as it is synonymous with the prairie town. The school is on Savage Avenue, for example.

At Thursday’s meeting, several commissioners spoke about the word and how it was used historically to portray Native Americans as less than human.

“The word savage was used disparagingly — it gave the right to form colonies without regard to native communities,” Commissioner Nicole Miera said, citing a reading about “savage” that concluded: “the world would be better when this place knows him no more.”

If the school used a nickname such as Savage Thunder it likely would continue to call its athletes Savages, as it has for decades, so the negative association would remain, said Doug Vilsack, who was representing the  Department of Natural Resources. Numerous state agencies have representatives on the CCIA board. DNR is a voting member. The agency is in the throes of scrubbing racist names from natural landmarks in Colorado, last month removing a slur against Native American women from 28 place names.

“From 1887 to 1934 the assimilation process for Native Americans was for them to become civilized,” said Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “We were recognized as savages, as people who were not equal. Today we need to change that and take away the savage imagery.” 

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

Schools that were deemed compliant with the law on Thursday:

  • Arickaree elementary and undivided high schools, were Indians, now Bison
  • Kiowa elementary, middle and high schools remain Indians under tribal agreement
  • Johnson Elementary, Montrose, retiring Thunderbird, new mascot to come
  • Montrose High School, Montrose, were Indians, now Red Hawks
  • Mountain Valley Schools, Saguache, were Indians, now Wolves
  • Yuma elementary, middle and high schools, retired Indians, no new mascot 

Schools with Thunderbird mascots added to the list of non-compliant schools on Thursday:

  • Hinkley High School, Aurora
  • Arrowhead Elementary, Cherry Creek
  • Thunder Ridge Middle School, Cherry Creek
  • Cheyenne Mountain Middle School, Colorado Springs
  • Thunder Mountain Elementary School, Grand Junction
  • Johnson Elementary, Fort Collins
  • Sangre de Cristo Schools, San Luis Valley
  • Shawsheen Elementary, Greeley

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