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A school mascot played a role in Stephanie Jerome’s decision last year not to enroll her 10-year-old daughter in the Cheyenne Mountain School District, whose high school mascot is the “Indians.”
The Jerome family is of Lakota and Ojibwe heritage. Before they moved to Colorado Springs, Jerome’s sons had been bullied in other schools for their background and their long hair, and given the mascot, the family thought it would be even worse for her daughter, Jeanvieve.
“It’s disrespectful to our people and it hurts to see people support that,” said Jeanvieve, who also didn’t want to go to school in the district and was homeschooled instead. She said it gives students permission to make fun of Native students, furthering mocking and bullying in schools.
The 25 Colorado schools that have American Indian mascots have 11 months to remove them or face a monthly fine of $25,000. That means changing uniforms, signs, paintings in hallways and even gym floors, and when Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed SB21-116, he paired it with a letter of concern about the short timespan and cost to school districts, which can run hundreds of thousands dollars.
Backers of the law say not only is it the right thing to do — American Indians in Colorado say many of the mascots turn their identities into caricatures — but the districts also have known this was a long time coming. Schools with these mascots could save making a change if they had an agreement with a federally recognized tribe by June 30, or they can apply for a state Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant to help with costs, though the process is already competitive and the grants likely wouldn’t be issued in time.
“High schools and colleges and universities really haven’t looked at it from a Native perspective,” Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart said. “They have these mascots in this area, or with the Redskins or with the Savages … are they really understanding who we are and what we do?”
The National Congress of American Indians has been asking for mascot changes for more than 30 years, said Democratic state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City, one of the sponsors of the new law. The Colorado Legislature has also tried to pass the bill in years past.
Colorado started its own assessment amid national discussions about the use of derogatory Native American mascots, and in 2016, a state commission recommended schools should eliminate all Native American mascots because of the misrepresentation and stereotypes they perpetuate unless a school came to an agreement with a federally recognized tribe.
In March, Cheyenne Mountain High School decided to retire its mascot. And Montrose County School District started looking at replacing the mascots at two of its schools this year once the bill passed the Legislature — Montrose High School (the Indians) and Centennial Middle School (the Braves, its logo a Native American in a headdress).
The district’s initial estimate for changing both mascots is a combined $500,000 to $750,000, though that could change, Montrose School District spokesman Matt Jenkins said. That would include everything from paint on the gym walls to scoreboards to school apparel.
Jenkins said the schools have a good relationship with local tribes and try to be respectful in the mascots’ use — there isn’t one painted on the high school gym floor — but they don’t have a formal agreement. The district plans to do whatever it needs to conform to the law.
Colorado Rural Schools Alliance Executive Director Michelle Murphy is worried about schools that operate on “shoestring budgets” and have already passed their yearly budgets. She believes the legislation goes beyond the commission’s work — the commission released recommendations but acknowledged local control of public schools.
“We have real concerns about the ability of rural school districts to find the resources and have sufficient time to make the required changes without incurring fines,” she said. “We also question the lawfulness of the fines under our state constitution.”
Many Colorado Republicans, particularly those from rural areas, also cited the cost and quick turnaround when they voted against the bill.
“Some of these names like the (Lamar) Savages are totally unacceptable, frankly,” GOP Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton said. But his vote came down to how he views the law as an unfunded mandate that could force schools to have to cut essential needs, including staff, to pay for the new expenses in a short amount of time.
There’s been a push in Lamar to change its mascot, the Savages, but the district so far has kept it. Requests to the school for comment were not returned.
Benavidez brushes off many of the complaints, noting the effects these mascots have on Indigenous students, as cited by national studies and stories shared by people who testified during the legislative session, including Jeanvieve.
“If this was any other kind of harm, we would say, ‘no, stop it.’ We wouldn’t say give them more time to pay for them to do things that hurt children,” Benavidez said.
Ernest House, Jr., the former executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, said the new law mirrors the recommendations of the committee on which he served. House is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado, and said people often don’t realize that American Indians are still here today.
“Ultimately that’s what this piece of legislation does — it pulls us out of that black and white photograph that you see in museums and where a lot of people think we are stuck as a people in this black and white photograph in the 1800s when we’re so much more than that,” House said.
And the schools don’t have to replace the mascots immediately or at all, which is where much of their costs come from, Benavidez argued. They could just remove the derogatory mascots and not replace them with anything.
But schools say not having a mascot is not an option.
“The school mascot is a source of pride for the community, for the school community, for families, for athletic organizations,” Jenkins said. “That mascot is something that folks hold tight to. It’s really a fabric of the community.”
Late last year, Denver’s South High School changed its mascot for a different reason. Under the leadership of a principal who identifies as Black and Mexican, the school replaced its “Rebels” mascot — a nod to the Confederacy — with the “Ravens.”
The replacement costs were upwards of $350,000 and the school is removing the last remnants of the mascot this summer, months after the official name change.
Principal Bobby Thomas has been pushing for the change since he started three years ago. He built upon the work of a predecessor in the 1980s — he’s only the second leader of color since then.
Thomas said he started with small rebranding efforts because of pushback, particularly from alumni. It was so ingrained in the school’s culture, with even certain terms being used during football plays.
He worked with parents, students and alumni to eventually get buy-in at all levels: public and private, conceptual and financial.
Despite the money and effort (and continued anger from some), “it’s so worth it because now I’m leading in a way that how I feel and what we believe in our values are aligned to our actions,” Thomas said.