Colorado schools that retired Native American mascots grapple with cultural shift

Sanford School District was one of the first to change its mascot after a Colorado law was created to rid schools of their Native American mascots that many deemed offensive. Sanford is now known as the Mustangs.

LAMAR — A steady stream of people sorted through sports jerseys piled on long tables in the Lamar High School gym recently as they searched for a coveted number — theirs, perhaps, or one worn by a son or daughter. Or their dad. Or their grandpa.

The sale and silent auction of all things Savages felt a bit like a class reunion where people shared stories of memorable games, coaches or high school days. But it was most like an estate sale for a departed and beloved community member.

“It’s just sad,” was a common refrain from people who clutched a bit of memorabilia to their chest.

They are resigned that the school is now home to the Lamar Thunder, and the mascot is a snorting buffalo charging at full speed. Those interviewed at the Sept. 17 sale didn’t want the change.

“Who?” said Cade Hasser, class of 2007, when asked what he thought of the Thunder.

Some said they are OK with the new name, and a few said they liked it.

It’s a cultural shift playing out in Lamar and about a dozen other Colorado school districts that were forced under a state law to get rid of Native American mascots. They had a year to make the change, and that deadline was June 1.

In most cases, new nicknames and logos are appearing on sports uniforms, gym floors and school walls. In Yuma, which opted against a new mascot after its pitch for Tribe was denied, it’s a giant Y or, simply, Yuma.

In Montrose, the new Red Hawks mascot for the high school was introduced to the community with a marching band banner at the Fourth of July parade.

In Lamar, the booster club has been promoting the Thunder on its Facebook page for weeks. In the tiny Arickaree School District in northeastern Colorado, the new Bison mascot was welcomed at a Bison Spirit Stampede.

There was no playbook for swapping mascots. And no money.

Meanwhile, 10 more schools added to a non-compliant list in May are under scrutiny this year because of their Thunderbird mascots. Two were removed at the first quarterly meeting of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs on Sept. 9, and the three schools previously listed for Sangre de Cristo School District in the San Luis Valley have been consolidated to two (all levels share one campus). That leaves seven on the state’s list of schools out of compliance with the law.

Although tinges of disappointment and bitterness linger, most school leaders say it’s time to refocus on the schools’ missions of delivering education.

“I believe that those who are fully aware of our role as an educational institution recognize that not allowing us to move forward with a new mascot is doing nothing but hurting our kids,” said Chad Krug, Lamar superintendent. “We want to ensure the kids are supported. Let’s go, let’s get back to business.”

Krug and other school leaders say it will take time to make the full cultural shift, but they are encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.

“With some minor exceptions, people are embracing the new mascot,” said Matt Jenkins, a spokesman for Montrose School District, where three schools had to dump mascots. “Change is tough for folks and when you have something in place for 100 years, it can be hard to change.”

Montrose Junior Class President Rachel Robuck said the school typically gives T-shirts to incoming freshmen, but the student council wanted all students to get a new Red Hawks shirt. They found sponsors and were able to give out about 1,500 shirts.

“I’m just really excited for it all,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity to say this is who we are as Montrose.”

High School Principal Heidi Voehringer said the shift started as the old stuff came down and was replaced.

“You hear a few comments about — ‘I’m going to be an Indian forever,’” she said. “But we are more than a mascot, we are Montrose. At Friday night lights two weeks ago it was embraced. I think it’s easier now that the new mascot is visible.”

A long time coming

The effort to rid schools and colleges of derogatory Native American mascots began decades ago, but change has come slowly. For example, the Palmer High School Terrors changed their Eaglebeak mascot from a caricature of an Indian to an actual eagle in the ’80s; in 1995, the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University Pueblo) changed its Indians mascot to the ThunderWolves.

Five years after a 2016 Colorado governor’s commission report recommended that 25 schools eliminate Native American mascots, only two did so. A third, Cheyenne Mountain High School, changed its mascot as a law was introduced that would force the change.

The slowness to respond to the recommendation, which was based on studies that show Native American mascots promote racist stereotypes and are harmful to Indigenous people, led to the legislation that mandated change and imposed $25,000 a month fines on those who refused.

It worked.

The only schools that have retained Native American mascots have agreements with tribal governments to use their mascots. These include Arapahoe High School in Centennial and Strasburg High School in Strasburg, which both have long-standing agreements with the Northern Arapaho Tribe on curriculum and cultural exchanges.

They were joined this year by Kiowa Schools, which signed a similar memorandum of understanding with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma in April. The district has an agreement from 2005, but the state required that it be updated.

Karen Carnahan, a third-grade teacher in Kiowa, said she has taught a segment on Native Americans for about six years in the spring semester. It includes an introduction to Native American life and tribes and students are required to produce a group project on a particular tribe.

That curriculum and one under development for a required half-year course for high school students on Native American history fulfills the educational requirement of the agreement.

Kiowa School Board Treasurer Danielle Ullom said the district has used the Kiowa Indian as a mascot for 101 years — since the district’s inception.

“We use it in a manner of respect,” she said. “There is nothing derogatory.”

Several other school districts reached out to various tribes to reach similar agreements over the past year, but none were successful.

The Sangre de Cristo School District recently told the Commission of Indian Affairs that it is working to reach such an agreement to retain its Thunderbird mascot.

A few schools also were allowed to retain Warrior mascots as long as they eliminated Native American imagery associated with them.

Costly changes

While hard figures are hard to come by, the changes have cost some districts thousands of dollars. Uniforms and sports bags had to be replaced, gym floors refinished, walls repainted and so on.

Montrose estimates that it has spent $350,000 for changes at the high school and middle school so far, and that doesn’t include some spring uniforms that haven’t been purchased. The district also is working on naming a new mascot for Johnson Elementary School, where the Thunderbird mascot was eliminated too late in the year for students and staff to discuss a replacement.

Lamar has exceeded $100,000 so far, Krug said.

Others haven’t tallied the costs and said as much work as possible was done in-house and uniform purchases were spread out as much as possible. A few schools were able to incorporate changes earlier because they had building projects underway.

Chris Medina, athletic director for Lamar High School, said uniforms are usually replaced every four years, with teams staggered so they don’t have to be purchased all at once.

Now, that rotational schedule is off although he said when talk of the new law started some uniforms were purchased with only Lamar on them just in case.

“Girls’ wrestling was a new sport for us last year so when we bought the uniforms they just say ‘Lamar,’” he explained, noting there have always been some differences based on coaches’ preferences.

Some schools still are grappling with what to do with the old uniforms and equipment, but Montrose and Lamar decided to have sales to raise money for new items.

Montrose raised $21,000 at the end of the last year with its sale, which included a large totem pole that sold in a bidding war, Jenkins said. He did not know the precise sale price but said it was in the thousands.

Lamar’s sale brought in just over $14,000. The top sellers at the silent auction were a weight room banner and a piece of art designed by Jostens that had hung in the office.

They each went for $500.

Buyers on Saturday morning said they mostly wanted something for the memories. It wasn’t unusual at the sale to find families that had four generations of graduates.

Terri Farmer, class of 1991, snagged one of 28 Savages folding chairs for $30 and jerseys with numbers that her kids wore. Her youngest daughter graduated this year — in the last class of Savages.

“It’s hard,” she said, noting that her dad was in the class of 1958 and grandfather was also a grad.

Hasser, the alum who isn’t ready to accept the new mascot, had a Savages backpack stuffed with shirts for his family and friends.

“This has been part of my life forever,” he said. “My dad was a wrestling coach.

“It’s nice that we had the opportunity to get it (shirts). But I’m not happy as to the why. It’s bittersweet I guess — more bitter than sweet.”

Elijah Adkins, class of 2017, was buying memorabilia because he wanted “to keep a little bit of history. It’s a memento.” But he’s ready to embrace the Thunder.

“A lot of people don’t like it, but I’m trying to support it,” he said. “It doesn’t make the kids less athletic or the teachers less proficient.”

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