Colorado lawmakers want to force schools to get rid of American Indian mascots — or pay up

Colorado schools with mascots like “Savages” and “Reds” would have to change the derogatory American Indian symbols or face monthly fines under a bill just introduced in the Colorado legislature.

Just 25 schools have such mascots, with many others already making the switch to something less offensive, said bill sponsor and Wheat Ridge Democrat Sen. Jessie Danielson. Her proposal would ban American Indian mascots and give schools until June, 1, 2022, to make the change. If they don’t, they’d face a monthly fine of $25,000.

“It’s long overdue,” Glenn Morris of the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement said. “There’s just no logical justification for them continuing it and it’s just a matter of privilege getting in the way of doing the right thing.”

The effort comes as people, governments and sports teams across the country are examining racist symbols in public places. Last fall, a geographic naming board in Colorado was formed to examine renaming racist or derogatory mountains and open spaces.

Various attempts by advocates to change the mascots of some Colorado schools in the state have recently been successful, while other efforts are ongoing. A renewed push began at the end of last year in Lamar — whose high school mascot is the Savages — by a group of students and alumni who formed “Lamar Proud” and are petitioning the school board to make a change.

Colorado isn’t alone in its push: Maine and Oregon already have statewide bans. Washington State’s similar bill just passed the House, Massachusetts lawmakers also are considering banning the mascots and Wisconsin’s governor would look to use state money to help schools remove the mascots. Utah lawmakers tried for a ban, but the resolution failed last week.

On a national level, Washington’s NFL team dropped its slur from its name last summer, Cleveland’s MLB team will find a new name soon and the NCAA banned American Indian mascots in 2005.

Colorado Democrats couldn’t pass a similar bill in a split legislature in 2015, but they now have control over both chambers of the General Assembly. That same year, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper formed a commission to study American Indian representation in schools, but only four schools agreed to get involved. The commission recommended the removal of all American Indian mascots in the state.

But opponents to changing names like the Lamar Savages have previously argued that the logos are respectful and have been used for more than a century, so it would be difficult to change. Some have cited monetary concerns.

Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican who opposes the bill, is a graduate of Montrose High School — The Montrose Indians.

“I think it’s a local issue, not a statewide issue. … There’s so much respect for the Ute Nation in my district. We’d never do something to disrespect them,” he said.

Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the mascots are denigrating and humiliating to American Indians.

“It continues the idea that native people are not people, that they’re cartoon characters or something else or that they no longer exist. And that’s not at all true,” she said.

And after a year where people across the nation demanded social and racial justice, there’s more to be done, Danielson said, and “the time to stop Colorado from using these derogatory mascots is now.”

Former state Rep. Joe Salazar brought the 2015 bill, and is excited to see the bill finally have a chance, despite how long it’s taken.

“One thing I know as a community activist, as a former legislator, you don’t see Black and brown bills passed right out of the gate — we have to struggle through it,” he said.

Salazar, who is of Apache descent, recalls receiving death threats and racist messages when he championed the idea in 2015. One particular letter stands out. He read it in a committee hearing and it was so bad, the committee chair told him he didn’t have to read it. Salazar had to pause here and there, but he got through it.

“It’s not just about a feel-good bill. It’s about rectifying the inequities of the past,” Salazar said, noting that research has shown the negative effects on children of such mascots and the stereotypes.

Reporter Alex Burness contributed to this story.

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