COLORADO SPRINGS — The debate over American Indian mascots continues as Colorado lawmakers propose a bill to ban the use by public schools, charter schools, and universities.
SB21-116 would not only prohibit the use of American Indian mascots but impose a monthly $25,000 fine for schools that continue to use them past June 1, 2022, payable to the state education fund.
According to the legislation, the presence and use of American Indian mascots across the state creates an unsafe learning environment for American Indian students by having serious negative impacts on those student's mental health and by promoting bullying of American Indian students. It goes on to say it teaches students inaccurate information about American Indian culture and teaches them that it is acceptable to participate in culturally abusive and prejudicial behaviors.
Senator Jessie Danielson, and Representatives Adrienne Benavidez, and Barbara McLachlan are sponsoring the bill and worked alongside Native American leaders to ensure the measure. They say it's been decades in the making and Native American leaders agree.
"We've been working in the state on this for decades. I think the first time I was involved with something was in 1994 and then it kind of ebbed and flowed. Every two years we would address it with the school (Cheyenne Mountain School District) and there were some local people that had talked to the school. We had gone to the school several times in the mid-'90s and then the school district shot it down every time. In 2015, we talked about it again and they wouldn't listen to it, they wouldn't even entertain the conversation," said Monycka Snowbird, Pikes Peak Indigenous Women's Alliance.
The Cheyenne Mountain School District is one of 25 schools in Colorado still using American Indian imagery.
"They kept promoting essentially myths that the Cheyenne Nation had given them their blessing to continue locally with this. We contacted both southern and northern Cheyenne Nations and they verified that they've never been contacted by District 12. There was a non-native performer that would go to the school and present that he had some authority to give his blessings and he would do fake ceremonies there at the school, they had local performers who were well-known dancers that would just do social dancing and performing and the school would impy they were all representatives from the Cheyenne Nation." said Snowbird.
Students within the district have also voiced their concern with maintaining an American Indian mascot.
"Over the summer when the new conversation about civil rights really became a talking point, a bunch of students and alumni collectively realized that we are a part of a community that enables racism, unintentionally, through our mascot and team name. As we all seek to be more socially aware human beings, it became important that we acknowledge that piece of racism in our community and help get it changed," said Weller Dorff, Cheyenne Mountain High School student.
"When I was in second grade, I moved to this district, but my parents tried really hard to educate me as much as possible so when I found out that my mascot was Indian, I didn't understand fully because I was confused on what that meant. So when my parents elaborate, I was eight, they vividly remember me saying I don't like that and I don't think that's good. Ever since then, I was always like I want to get the mascot changed, said Kristin Varallo, Cheyenne Mountain High School student.
Dorff and Varallo say they've been vocal about their wishes to get the mascot changed. Now with a bill aimed at doing just that, they're excited to see what happens next.
"This widens the conversation, this brings more people to the table and this gets all of the different people involved, involved. At some point we have to take decisive action about this, this is an actively racism, harmful stereotype that we are perpetuating on native people. If the government wants to help heal societal wounds and acknowledge the privilege that's been perpetuated in our society in the last few centuries then this involvement is essential," said Dorff.
According to the bill, in 2015, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order to establish the commission to study American Indian representations in public schools. The commission, comprised of American Indian leaders from across the state, visited the schools that wanted to be a part of this conversation. There were only four: Strasburg, Loveland, Eaton, and Lamar. After visiting each of these communities, the commission's recommendation was to completely eliminate American Indian imagery and nomenclature in schools in Colorado. Since that time, a few state schools have voluntarily abandoned their American Indian mascots.
"They were supposed to get rid of every single native image, they finally got rid of the tomahawk chant finally. They still until August had the native American image on their sign and then going into the school they have images still on the walls and gyms. Seeing that was extremely disrespectful to me," Larrisa Marulli, Cheyenne Mountain School District alumni.
"When are our kids were being removed and punished for speaking their language, you had District 12 kids in fake regalia, pretending to be the very people that you displaced to have your school here. There is a big difference between who native people are and who they are pretending us to be," said Snowbird. "
State lawmakers say it's long overdue to replace American Indian mascots with something less offensive.
"The use of these derogatory mascots are harmful to native youths and non-native youths. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes that are harmful to our entire community," Senator Jessie Danielson, (D) Colorado.
Native American leaders hope the bill is a wake-up call that they're more than just a mascot.
"To continue to other us, mascots, and how our history is taught or not taught, informs the entitlement to debase us into these mascots," said Raven Payment, Pikes Peak Indigenous Women's Alliance.
The Cheyenne Mountain School District is planning on holding a Board Meeting on March 15th to discuss the future of their mascot. Sources tell News 5 that a vote on whether to keep or replace it will happen during that time.