ALAMOSA – Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on compliance with SB21-116. The first part was publsihed on Tuesday.
Another local school that could have been in a position to change its mascot because of the passage of SB21-116 was the Sangre de Cristo School District No. RE-22J.
Sangre de Cristo uses the Thunderbirds mascot. However, the Thunderbird is a symbol that is sacred to many native tribes.
“I understand if you look at the legislation, the emphasis is on a more derogatory term,” said Sangre superintendent James Crews. “When you look at Thunderbird, it is a mythical bird and it has some cultural stories related to the Navajos. Primarily for the northwest tribes not in Colorado. It compared to me as an Eagle or a Bear. Those are symbols of native American culture as well. The Thunderbird is not real and so that’s maybe one of the reasons why they said it needs to change. It’s not a derogatory term or anything like that. The Thunderbird image in our hallway talks about how much we respect the descriptions of why we want to be represented as the Thunderbirds.
“Because it’s tied to native American culture, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) felt like it was a symbol that needs to be changed,” Crews added.
The Thunderbirds has been the mascot for Sangre de Cristo since 1959 when the Mosca and Hooper School Districts consolidated into a single district. Mosca was previously the Wranglers and Hooper was the Bulldogs.
“The identity for our community is the Thunderbirds and we’d like to retain it if we can,” Crews said.
The Thunderbird mascot was added to the list of mascots late. In fact it was added in May catching the district by surprise.
“They passed the law in 2021 and we were not on the radar then,” Crews said. “When they determined the list of mascots, they looked at Montrose School District. They needed to change their high school which was the Indians, and their middle school which was the Braves. Then they had an elementary school with the Thunderbird name. So they added those three schools to be on the list. That kind of opened up the question of the Thunderbird. So the Montrose district presented an appeal of not wanting to change Thunderbird, so it was decided they needed to change. Once that took place, the CCIA looked at other school districts that had the Thunderbirds mascot. There were seven of us that were identified.
“When we made our presentation in May and they voted on each district and they determined that we needed to change,” Crews added. “The response was how can we change if we’re supposed to have everything changed by June 1. So because they determined us late in the game, they provided those seven districts to have an extension of a year to make those changes.”
The penalty of not complying with the change was a fine of $25,000 per month after June 1. However because of the extension, Sangre will not have to pay any fines until June of 2023 if an agreement with a tribe and approval by the CCIA has not been determined.
“We wouldn’t have to do anything because they gave us a year extension,” Crews said.
Crews hopes to be able to continue with having the Thunderbird mascot for longer than that. The prohibition does not apply to any agreement that exists prior to June 20, 2021 between a federally recognized Indian tribe and a public school, although the tribe has the right and ability to revoke the agreement at any time. It also adds that any public school that is operated by a tribe or with the approval of a tribe and existing within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation. The law also states that the prohibition does not apply to the ability of a tribe to create and maintain a relationship or agreement with a public school that fosters goodwill, emphasizes education and supports a curriculum that teaches native American History, and encourages a positive cultural exchange. Any such agreement may allow any mascot that is culturally affiliated with the tribe, as determined at the tribe’s governing body.
“In the legislation, there is a possibility that we could retain our name,” Crews said. “We you look at the legislation, it says that if you have that relationship, you could continue to use the mascot. If it was something that it was approved by the CCIA. When I reached out to the director of the commission, that perhaps we could continue with the Thunderbirds name. So she said yes. So I’ve reached out to a couple of tribes, but I haven’t any answers back from them. A couple of things have to take place. An approval from a tribe, and the approval from the CCIA. So that’s a couple of things that are up in the air. I’ll have some meetings with those guys in a month or two describing what my plan is. If it doesn’t work out, then we’re going to pivot towards making the change that we need to make.”
Crews said that the community and student body are in favor of keeping the Thunderbird mascot.
“The support from the community is that they’d like to see us retain the mascot if possible,” Crews said. “The feeling is kind of the same way that we were named Thunderbirds was not derogatory in any means. It was to honor the culture and to bring respect that the physical mascot represents.”