Commission Calls on Colorado Schools to Drop Native American Mascots

(Photo: Creative Commons)

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Colorado state authorities and tribal leaders are urging public schools to get rid of their Native American mascots, nicknames, and logos, saying that they promote derogatory symbols in high schools and sports.

Governor Hickenlooper appointed a commission to review the issue in 2015 after the Colorado state legislature failed to pass a bill that would require tribal approval for public schools to keep employing Native American mascots. About 30 public schools with American Indian mascots remain in Colorado, including such names as the “Lamar Savages,” “Strasburg High School Indians,” and “Eaton Reds.”

Elizabeth Hernandez of The Denver Post writes that the report calls for four remedial steps. First, schools must get rid of these mascots, especially the more derogatory ones; second, schools should enter formal relationships with federally recognized tribes to retain or use American Indian imagery. Additionally, information and opinions about such imagery must be shared openly between school officials, and tribal leaders and schools must promote American Indian history and contributions.

Gov. Hickenlooper characterizes this community-based approach regarding cultural appropriation as “uniquely Colorado.” “This commission has charted a path forward for Colorado with a willingness to work together through conversation and collaboration,” he said. “We are grateful to everyone who participated in the process. Their hard work gives us all a better understanding of each other and the complexities of the issue.”

Advocates of the measures trumpeted the improved self-esteem that students would feel if the mascots were discarded. “Harmful stereotypes affect students’ lives, day in, day out,” says William Mendoza, the executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.

The website Coloradoan reports that more than two-thirds of American schools have retired their Native American mascots since the 1970s. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to such mascots in 2001. Additionally, the NCAA warned colleges and universities in 2005 that they would face sanctions if they failed to change American Indian logos or nicknames. Some institutions, such as Florida State Seminoles and Utah Utes, kept their names after seeking tribal approval.

Critics of the proposed policies, however, worry about the effect name changes will have on local traditions such as school spirit. Others, leery of government intervention, say that the issue should be left to individual schools to review their own mascots and leave the decision process up to them. They point to the town of Strasburg as an example.

According to Colorado Public Radio, in Strasburg, where high school students refer to themselves as “Indians,” community leaders partnered with the Northern Arapaho Tribe to explore the origins of the school’s mascot and redesign it, along with other images and murals on campus. “As an administrator, emphasizing respect for all cultures and for all people is one of our most important educational missions,” Strasburg High School principal Jeff Rasp said. “Our partnership with the Arapahoe tribe has been one of the most beneficial experience ever for our school.”

The discussion in Colorado echoes the national dialogue continuing to build over the name of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Tribal organizations have been advocating for a name change for decades, and, now, many groups and prominent individuals, including President Obama, are doing the same. So far, these efforts have been resisted by the NFL and the team’s ownership.