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Gov. Polis notes funding concerns with bill banning American Indian mascots

Deadline to stop using derogatory, offensive representations is June 1
Loveland High School students enter school, walking past a sign bearing the image of the school mascot, a Native American, in 2014. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press file)

Starting June 1, Colorado public schools must stop using Native American mascots or face steep fines under a bill Gov. Jared Polis signed into law earlier this week. But Polis, a Democrat, wrote an accompanying letter to state lawmakers that cited concerns about the bill.

“I am proud of Colorado for this landmark legislation, and am grateful for the individuals who traveled from all across the country to testify in support of (Senate Bill) 21-116,” Polis wrote. “I am, however, concerned about the timing and financial burden this bill places on Colorado schools without adequate time or resources to make changes to their mascots and their buildings.”

Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, sponsored SB 116 with Democratic Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Denver and Barbara McLachlan of Durango. It prohibits any “name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom or tradition that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name for the school.”

Under the final version of the bill, public K-12 schools and institutions of higher education have until June 1 to change their mascots. After those respective deadlines, a school will be fined $25,000 for each month it continues to violate the ban. The money would go to the State Education Fund.

“The bill requires and prohibits the use of derogatory Indian mascots,” Benavidez said. “It doesn’t require establishing new mascots or anything else. So removing mascots is not, in my understanding, very expensive.”

The bill allows schools that need to remove Native American mascots to apply for the competitive Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, grant funding through the Colorado Department of Education. However, according to Polis’ signing statement, “the prioritization of projects for (BEST) funding required in statute would make it difficult for schools to receive the funds necessary for structural changes.”

“We look forward to working to remedy this to make more funds available,” he said.

Benavidez said she wasn’t sure what the governor meant by that. She told Newsline she’d be unwilling to support any future legislation extending the deadline past June 1 of next year, given that a state task force issued a report years ago recommending that schools change their mascots.

The Commission to Study American Indian Representations in Public Schools, established by former Gov. John Hickenlooper, recommended in 2016 that “communities eliminate American Indian mascots, particularly those that are clearly derogatory, offensive, or misrepresent American Indian people or tribes” and said that schools and communities using the mascots should hold public forums so people including American Indians could share their perspectives.

“This has been a continuing issue within Indian Country and with American Indians,” Benavidez said. “This is taking a toll on the mental health of young people in these schools, and it needs to end.”

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.

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