Danielle SeeWalker, a Lakota descendant from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who lives in Denver, believes it’s well past time to get rid of American Indian mascots in public schools.
Lee Roubideaux, a Rosebud Sioux who lives in Yuma, wants his community’s schools to keep their Indian mascot.
Just whose views will carry the day is now the subject of a lawsuit filed against the state by the Native American Guardians Association (NAGA), along with students and alumni from two of the Colorado high schools with disallowed Native American mascots.
The lawsuit, and the opposition to Senate Bill 116, bring up another issue, one hinted at during testimony on the bill during the 2021 session: Native American views on mascots are not monolithic.
NAGA and the plaintiffs, represented by the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, brought the lawsuit in federal District Court for Colorado last week, challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 116 on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds.
The law requires all but two Colorado public schools to end their use of Indian mascots and nicknames no later than June 1 next year. Those that refuse may face a $25,000 per month fine.
The plaintiffs filed for an emergency injunction on Nov. 5 against the state to block the law’s implementation due to a Nov. 30 grant deadline set by the Colorado Department of Education. The grants, which tap the Building Excellent Schools Together (BEST) fund, would help pay for the costs of a school replacing sports uniforms or other mascot-bearing items. The court has yet to act on the injunction request. The state’s response is due on Nov. 23, while the plaintiffs’ response to the state’s brief is due on the 26th. A hearing would take place after that.
In a related matter, the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs was scheduled to discuss on Tuesday the Yuma school district’s request to rename its mascot “tribe,” as well as mascot requests from Lamar High School and the Weldon Valley School District in Morgan County. However, the commission changed its meeting agenda to an executive-session discussion on the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the Yuma Board of Education, which is scheduled to meet Monday, initially planned to adopt a new mascot. That discussion was removed from the agenda, according to the Yuma Pioneer.
These developments could put schools seeking changes to their mascots in a bind; they face a Nov. 30 deadline to apply for grants even as their name-changing plans are potentially on hold.
Indeed, Native Americans testified both for and against the bill during testimony on SB 116 in April, with pro and con arguments sometimes coming from representatives of the same tribe.
Nowhere is this divide within the Native American community more obvious than at Yuma High School, where Native Americans, including school alumni, have rallied around the district’s mascot.
The town is named after an indigenous tribe, Yuma, or Quechan, whose reservation is on historic Yuma lands in southern Arizona. SB 116 allows the school to keep the Yuma name but not its mascot, the Indians, which was adopted by a student vote 86 years ago based on discovery of a Yuma arrowhead in the area.
Roubideaux, who belongs to the Rosebud Sioux, pleaded with lawmakers to let Yuma keep its mascot. It’s never been derogatory or racist, he said, adding he supports respectful uses of Indian names and tribes.
“The Yuma Indian is positive to me and our town. People love the name, the headdresses and the sculpture” of the Indians, he told the Senate Education Committee. Testimony against the bill also came from members of the Oglala Sioux and Navajo nations.
Arrayed on the other side were dozens of Native Americans from the Standing Rock Sioux, Mohawk and Ojibwe nations. In one hearing, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council distributed a letter supporting the ban.
SeeWalker testified during the same April 1 hearing with the Senate Education Committee that cultural exchanges need to take place between tribal governments and non-tribal communities, but that does not need to happen through mascots.
SeeWalker’s son, Brody, a seventh-grader in April, also added his voice to the debate.
“I’m not anyone’s mascot and I’m no animal, a savage or anyone’s good luck charm,” he said, adding schools are supposed to be a safe place where students can learn about equality and the ills of racism.
Others testified that a headdress, as is used both in mascot logos and by people dressed as school mascots, is a sacred, cultural object, not a costume.
As the debate raged on, some suggested its sponsors — notably Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge — only listened to tribes they favored and not others. Danielson did not return a request for comment.
But the sponsors maintained the mascot ban is the proper corrective action.
Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, a sponsor, said during the bill signing in June that Coloradans “for far too long have had to live with the pain perpetuated by racist mascots” in public schools.
“It’s taken years to get to this point, but today we are finally getting rid of hurtful mascots that we know have created hostile environments and have impacted students’ mental health,” she said.
Native American leaders also say that banning Indian mascots is part of a welcome effort to address historic grievances, one that grew out of the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd.
According to the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, 28 public schools have Native American mascots. But two secured agreements outlined in SB 116 and can keep their mascots as long as those agreements remain in place.
The Strasburg School District has an agreement with the Northern Arapaho tribe. Arapahoe High School has an agreement dating back to 1993 with the Arapaho Nation.
Almost all of the 26 schools with mascots banned under SB 116 are in rural communities, except for Central High School in Grand Junction and the Community Prep School in Colorado Springs.
Who is NAGA?
NAGA’s website said it advocates for educating people about indigenous people’s issues, particularly through sports, rather than by eradicating the mascots those schools used. The Colorado lawsuit is its first, the association told Colorado Politics, although its members have been expert witnesses in other lawsuits over similar issues.
The organization has been criticized in the past for alleged ties to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Football Team. Both NAGA and Snyder deny any such ties. The 2020 Sports Illustrated story on Snyder’s team and a foundation he developed — and later closed — to support Native Americans said that, while direct ties between NAGA and Snyder are “hard to find,” indirect ties may exist. The SI article quoted Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, who said it is “kind of common knowledge in the activist community that there is a strong relationship” between NAGA and Snyder’s team.
NAGA’s finances are also a bit of a mystery. Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits, has not issued a rating for NAGA because it files only a 990EZ, which applies to organizations with less than $200,000 in annual contributions. The SI article pointed out that NAGA did not file a 990, which is required for groups with more than $50,000 in annual contributions, in 2017 or 2018.
A GoFundMe page set up in November last year to help NAGA with its 2021 mission raised $200.
NAGA’s Facebook page claims the organization has “stood alone as the National representative voice of a documented 91% of American Indians who do not want our names and imagery eradicated.”
The Yuma Pioneer reported Thursday that a NAGA rally is scheduled for Sunday at Yuma High. The featured speaker is NAGA’s newest board member, David Finkenbinder, a 1982 graduate of Yuma High and a member of the Sioux nation.
Long road to the ban
Attempts to require schools to drop Indian mascots has not been an easy lift for lawmakers, and only a few have tried.
In 2010, Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, a registered member of the Comanche tribe, sponsored Senate Bill 10-107, requiring Colorado public high schools and charter high schools to drop the use of Indian mascots unless they obtained permission from the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, which is part of the lieutenant governor’s office. Schools that continue to use the mascots could face a one-time $1,000 fine, payable to the state education fund.
That bill never made it out of its first committee hearing. Williams withdrew the bill, saying the schools had pledged to work with Colorado Indian Education Foundation. At the time, even the Hickenlooper administration balked at the proposal, and then-Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien told the Denver Post the commission didn’t have the staff to handle that kind of work.
Fast forward to 2015 and then-Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and then-Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, sponsored House Bill 15-1165.
The measure called for the establishment of an 11-member panel within the Commission on Indian Affairs that would decide on schools’ use of Native American mascots. Under the bill, schools that used an unapproved mascot faced a $25,000 monthly fine, paid to the state treasurer. Schools using disapproved mascots could apply for grants for new uniforms and any other expenses linked to changing their mascots.
The 2015 bill failed, but its mission of setting up a panel to look at mascots didn’t.
Many of that bill’s provisions also found their way into SB 116.
Later that year, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order to form a commission to study the issue. The order said that, in some cases, school districts “even found ways to use the debate over offensive mascots as an opportunity to educate students about our common history and bring diverse communities together.”
His order added: “It is in that spirit, we believe a more open and ongoing discussion and study is needed to identify how affected communities can respect the culture of American Indians while maintaining community traditions.”
The 15-member commission had six Native American members, who represented the Ute Mountain, Southern Ute, Navajo (Dine), Pawnee and Gambell (Alaska) tribes.
At the time of that executive order and the study’s report that resulted a year later, 38 schools had American Indian mascots.
The report recommended that schools and communities with American Indian mascots review their depictions in public forums that allow for the “sharing of perspectives,” including input from Native Americans.
“The use of these mascots must be reevaluated with a strong consideration of the negative impact they have on American Indians and on all cultures and students. Mascots or images should be eliminated, particularly those that are derogatory and offensive,” the report said.
As for community traditions, the commission said it respects the primacy of local school boards, including their ability to “address the appropriate use of American Indian mascots and representations in sports and other settings.”
The commission also urged communities to tackle the topic at the local level and via support systems that “ensure culturally sensitive, inclusive, and respectful learning environments for the benefit of all their students.”
The report, however, did not support legislative penalties and unfunded mandates for schools that choose to keep their mascots.
Native American leaders, including several who served on the 2015 Hickenlooper commission, declined to comment about NAGA, some citing advice of legal counsel.
In addition to NAGA, the plaintiffs include two current students and an alumnus from Yuma High School, whose mascot is the “Indians,” and an alumnus of Lamar High School, where the mascot is the “Savages.”
A fifth plaintiff, Donald Smith of Yuma, is of Cherokee descent and previously taught in Colorado schools, including at Yuma.
The lawsuit claims that, as a result of SB 116, he could no longer accept future teaching positions “without being subject to a hostile environment.” The lawsuit did not flesh out why.
The lawsuit began by likening the issue of banning mascots to a ban on naming schools after civil rights pioneers.
“Imagine a state law that barred schools from using the name or image of an African American individual on its logos or letterhead,” the lawsuit said. “That would be the end of school names honoring Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, or Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. Or imagine a law banning school names and letterhead honoring Latin Americans like Cesar Chavez or Justice Sonya Sotomayor.”
The lawsuit claimed the plaintiffs “oppose the use of American Indian mascot performers and caricatures that mock Native American heritage — such as Lamar High School’s former mascot Chief UghLee.”
But the lawsuit is silent on the appropriateness of the Lamar mascot “Savages,” which is considered highly offensive by those who testified in favor of SB 116 during the recent legislative session.
According to the LaJunta Tribune-Democrat, replacing the Lamar mascot could cost at least $213,000. After the passage of SB 116, the school reached out to a tribe in Oklahoma to secure an agreement to keep using the name, without success.
The Lamar School District Board of Education declined an opportunity to join in the lawsuit, citing the timeline for court action that could go beyond the June 1, 2022 deadline for changing their mascot, according to the Tribune-Democrat.
The NAGA lawsuit claimed SB 116 “sweeps derisive, neutral, and honorific uses of Native American names and imagery together into the universal term ‘American Indian mascot.’”
In a statement, NAGA board member Eunice Davidson Wicanhpiwastewin (Good Star Woman), said her group believes SB 116 “unlawfully discriminates against Plaintiffs by conferring benefits on non-Native American bystanders who are not the targets of racism and discrimination with regard to Native American names, logos, and imagery.”
She added: “One of NAGA’s primary goals is to partner with school districts to reappropriate Native American names as honorifics in order to reclaim their meaning and to teach non-Native American students about Native American history.”
The defendants are Gov. Jared Polis; State Treasurer Dave Young; Kathryn Redhorse, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs; Attorney General Phil Weiser; Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education; and Georgina Owens, Title VII state coordinator for the state department of education.
Through a spokesman, Polis declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The case is Marez et al v. Polis.
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