Like a demolition team swinging a sledgehammer, legislators intent on purging Native American mascots from Colorado schools smashed their opposition with little consideration of the wreckage they were creating. So certain of the righteousness of their cause, they denied even mere consideration to the communities on which they imposed their will.
Two of Colorado’s smallest districts – Arickaree (103 students) and Mountain Valley (153 students) – are being severely harmed by this legislation which isn’t just about mascots but instead prohibits any sort of Native American imagery “used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name” by a school.
Surrounded by prairie and farmland on the plains of Washington County, Arickaree School is one of Colorado’s few remaining country schools, located between Cope (population 230) and Anton (155).
Arickaree derives its name from the Arikaree River, which begins near Cope and was named for the Arikara tribe. Given its location and history, it’s hardly surprising that the community selected “Indians” as the name for school teams. Critics could just as easily argue that ignoring the area’s Indian heritage – by changing the name to, say, Arickaree Guardians – would be disrespectful, too.
Compliance with Senate Bill 116 isn’t as simple as calling school teams by another nickname. The school must replace its sports, band and cheerleader uniforms from junior high to high school. The center of the high school gymnasium floor – newly installed in 2019 – includes a distinguished painting of the tribe’s logo, which also adorns the outside of the building and signage along the road. Native American imagery in hallways, classrooms, locker rooms and the cafeteria must also be expunged.
So, what about those sports championship banners proudly displayed in the gymnasium? At times, Arickaree has been a powerhouse in six-man football and in basketball. Must they now tear down those authentic championship banners and replace them with banners that pretend the Arikara Indians never existed?
Nearly 300 miles to the southwest, Mountain Valley School on the northern edge of the San Luis Valley faces a heart-breaking conundrum. Just three years ago, the community supported construction of a $31 million new school. A Ute artist worked with the school to replace the longtime “mean-looking” Native American logo.
Because the Utes were expert horsemen, the new logo depicts a silhouetted Ute rider on horseback in front of the Ute trail portion of the Old Spanish Trail. Behind the rider, school colors outline the Sangre de Cristo (red) and San Juan (black) mountains. The logo is accented by seven black feather tips representing the seven Ute bands that were prominent in the Saguache area.
These symbols and colors were integrated throughout the new building, including the gym floor and a decorative wall. A Southern Ute tribe representative blessed the groundbreaking and attended the ribbon-cutting, expressing appreciation of the culturally-relevant manner in which MVS embraced tribal heritage.
“When SB 116 came along, I thought we were in compliance,” said Superintendent Travis Garoutte. But the Southern Ute council declined the approval necessary for MVS to keep this imagery.
By any objective standard, the artwork used by MVS doesn’t merely respect Ute culture but celebrates it. Now because SB 116 provides no appeal for approval to an accountable state entity, the school must demolish this work and start over.
It’s not difficult to imagine proponents of SB 116 defending these dignified Native American images if someone on the political right wanted to banish them in favor of mascots that celebrate our state’s European settlers. Regardless of motive, purging Native American symbols from these schools amounts to a disgraceful cultural cleansing.
Legislators effectively threw a hand grenade into these and other communities. Arickaree operates on $1.7 million from state and local taxes; Mountain Valley receives $2.1 million. The law will force them to divert money intended to educate students and instead spend up to $300,000 to tear up gymnasium floors, demolish artwork and replace uniforms, flags and banners.
Legislators responsible for SB 116 should take time to visit these schools and explain to the students, teachers and communities why they must be sacrificed after making every effort possible to be respectful of Native American heritage.
Mark Hillman served as Colorado Senate majority leader and state treasurer. To read more or comment, go to www.MarkHillman.com.