Monycka Snowbird, left, argues against keeping the Cheyenne Mountain Indians mascot with a supporter, who declined to give her name, outside the Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 board work session in the fall of 2020. The district voted in March to retire the symbol.

The House on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that will ban the use of most Indian mascots and nicknames in Colorado public schools, colleges and universities. The Senate Thursday night concurred on amendments and it now heads to the governor's desk.

The House Education Committee, however, did soften the blow for the nearly two dozen public schools that use Indian mascots and that are not part of cooperative agreements with Native American tribes. The expense of replacing sports uniforms, painted symbols on gym floors and other places in the schools has been cited as a burden to their budgets, so the committee added an amendment to allow those schools to tap funds from the Build Excellent Schools Today fund.

Another amendment allows schools that are named after towns with Indian names (Yuma, Niwot and Ouray, most notably) to still use the name, including on school letterheads.

Under the bill, schools must end their use of Indian mascots and nicknames no later than June 1, 2022. Those that refuse can incur a $25,000 per month fine.

The education committee heard pleas from a dozen residents of Yuma, including Native American residents who believe the Yuma High School's Indian mascot honors Native Americans rather than dehumanizing them.

Most school districts with Indian mascots use them in a proper and historic way, according to Dan Ross, president of the Yuma School District board of education. He also said he believes changing the name will cost the district about $250,000.

“Our name as the Yuma Indians brings us together," said John Smith, a senior at Yuma High and president of the senior class. Yuma citizens have shown only respect for the mascot and they will continue to do so, he said.

Rory Lynch, a teacher at Yuma, said he has never seen disrespect for the American Indian at the school. “It works because we respect each other and work together. As a team, our cultures are celebrated and shared.”

The committee also heard from alumni of Lamar High School, where the its nickname, the savage, has been cited as one of the most offensive. It's also been divisive in the southeastern Colorado community, with one alumni group that favors changing the mascot and another that supports keeping it as is.

Dene (Navajo) Demetrius Marez, a 1993 graduate of Lamar High School, said the savage is a "proud, honorable and noble Indian chief, with his head held high." But Blake Mondell of Lamar Proud, which advocates for the change, said, "We stand beside those American Indian members of the Lamar community who are forced to watch their peers dress up in sacred attire or in mocking displays and who are antagonized and have even been assaulted because of stereotypes that 'Lamar Savage' perpetuates in our schools."

Mondell pointed to banners at opposing schools in sports events that say things like "Scalp the Savages."

After winning approval on a party-line vote from the committee, the bill next headed to the House floor and a June 2 debate.

Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, pointed out one other change from the committee hearing: the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs will develop a list of schools not in compliance with the law and post it on its website. In this era of "cancel culture," Geitner said, that could lead to students and faculty being targeted for harassment. But an amendment he proposed to remove that section of the bill failed. 

The bill sponsor, Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, said the amendment had been requested by the commission. She also said the bill went through an "extensive stakeholder" process for the bill, including discussions with three Native tribes. However, when the bill was in the Senate, its sponsor, Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, admitted she never reached out to the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes before introducing the bill, and that they requested changes once it was introduced. According to witness testimony from Yuma, the sponsors also never reached out to their community or school to talk about the bill.

People can easily find out which schools are using Indian mascots, and there has been no claims that harassment has taken place, Benavidez said. 

Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, whose district includes Yuma, thanked the sponsors for providing money to cover the costs of changing the mascots. 

Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, one of the bill sponsors, noted the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute both support the bill. Mascots represent hurt, pain and sadness, and are naïvely used without understanding how it can hurt others. It's not funny nor productive, and it's wrong, she said.

"This bill has been a long time coming," Benavidez said, with efforts dating back to 1968 and the National Congress of American Indians. According to a Congress statement that Benavidez cited, "the intolerance and harm promoted by Indian sports mascots, logos or symbols have real consequences for Native peoples. Rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful." 

"This country is undergoing a racial reckoning. We cannot forget or overlook that," Benavidez said.

Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, has four schools in his district that will be affected by SB 116. "Not everything is racially motivated unless you look through those glasses," he told the House.

In Washington County, the Arickaree Indians are proud of their heritage, and never have they wanted to do anything to harm a tribal affiliation, Holtorf said. He had issue with the bill's " stick" approach, he said, referring to the $25,000 monthly fine.

"We will whip those communities into compliance with that stick," he said. Those in his community have no intention to cause the harm cited by the sponsors, he said. 

Benavidez replied that the Declaration of Independence was founded on racism, including one portion that says King George III had incited "domestic insurrections" from slaves and "merciless Indian savages."

"We're not making this up; we tend to ignore the racial undertones of this country," she said. "The people that this is directed to know it." And many people believe Indians don't exist, she added. "They're here. They're people like me."

On Thursday, the House approved Senate Bill 116 on a 40-24 party-line vote.

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