Eyes roll when government at any level deals with a difficult issue by announcing a committee to study it. The government is the broom, the committee is the rug, and the issue is the tough topic about to be swept under that rug. But not always.
Ernest House Jr., the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, chuckled when asked if this could pertain to the panel announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper to study representations of American Indians in the state’s public schools. In particular that would include studying the use of such terms as “savages” and “redskins” as school nicknames or mascots.
House sees the new commission as more of a persistent effort at change.
“I think this approach advocates for a community dialogue,” he said of the governor’s move. “It’s different than legislation – there are no fines involved, no threats, no measures to take away state education funding.”
The committee will have up to 15 members, including American Indians, educators and representatives of local school districts. “We’re not just having these meetings in Denver,” House said. “We’ll be going out to the communities that have these kinds of mascots.”
Hickenlooper’s executive order noted that two previous legislative attempts to deal with the use of American Indian mascots in public schools “failed to pass.” Even so, the formative language behind his new commission doesn’t mince words about its agenda.
“The use of imagery and names that are offensive and degrading to American Indians in institutions of public education dishonors the ongoing legacy of American Indians in the State of Colorado,” the order states.
The issue is not unique to Colorado, of course. Nationally it continues to play out around the NFL’s Washington D.C. football team.
Both the executive order and House noted that in testifying against state legislation that would have mandated changes in nicknames, local school officials and others said that the names were steeped in local traditions and important to community identity. There was also testimony about financial constraints that would prevent rural schools or districts from rebranding themselves, House said, calling those arguments “legitimate concerns.”
In a visit this spring to the Eastern Plains ranching town of Lamar, home of the Savages, Lynn Bartels of The Denver Post, found plenty of people opposed to changing the name,
“We don’t use Savages in a derogatory sense,” one student told Bartels. “It’s a pride thing.”
“If we had to change our name, folks around here would be pretty upset,” former principal Allan Medina, who now serves on the school board, told the reporter. “What would we have to do with all our murals? Paint over them? Because I think they’re pretty respectful.”
Even so, the governor’s order said, such images “may also reinforce negative stereotypes about American Indians and limit public knowledge about actual indigenous culture and heritage.”
And for Colorado, that can get complicated. For example, Lamar is one of the closer towns of any size to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the American West, some 50 miles northeast as the crow flies.
In the present day, the governor’s order notes, “some school districts in Colorado have found constructive and collaborative ways to migrate away from offensive ethnic caricatures and mascots” without losing tradition or costing money.
Last spring, House praised the efforts of Arapahoe High School in Centennial in reaching out to the Northern Arapahoe tribe on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to collaborate around the school’s mascot, symbols and other issues.
The school remains the Arapahoe Warriors, but the Northern Arapahoe are pleased with how the usage is being depicted, House said.
The first meeting of the new commission will be in Strasburg, home of the Indians, he said. Strasburg High School, 40 miles east of Denver on I-70, has also won praise for its outreach in dealing with its nickname.
Strasburg principal Jeff Rasp praised student Lindsey Nichols and her senior project of reaching out to tribes that once lived in the area.
“Lindsey and I have benefited so much from our contact with the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes,” Rasp wrote to I-News in an email. “This endeavor is helping to educate us and our school and gain a deeper understanding of the culture and way of life of local Native Americans. It has also helped us to gain a new perspective on our mascot and how Native Americans are represented.”
According to the advocacy group American Indian Cultural Support, 48 Colorado schools have Native American mascots. The news publication Indian Country Today put the number at more than 30 schools.
House, himself a Ute Mountain Ute, said the commission would work November into March, then make its recommendations to the governor and legislature.