It was a headline I knew was coming for weeks, yet there was a catch in my throat when I read it in The Denver Post: “If Washington can bury the Redskins name, why is Lamar still standing by its Savages?”
The Eastern Plains town has successfully fought various attempts to change its high school mascot but this time around, Lamar’s caught up in a national tidal wave that doesn’t appear to be slowing.
“Mutual of Omaha is moving away from Native American imagery that defined its corporate logo. Land O’Lakes is retiring its ‘butter maiden’ after nearly a century of use. Even Washington owner Dan Snyder was forced to tap out, eventually,” sportswriter Sean Keeler wrote in the Post on July 26.
Five years ago I traveled to Lamar after Rep. Joe Salazar and Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, two Adams County Democrats, introduced a bill to require schools with American Indian names or mascots to get approval from a panel of tribal members or face steep fines.
The townsfolk initially were leery of talking to a big-city reporter because they expected a hit piece, but thawed when they discovered that Lamar Mayor Roger Stagner was married to my Cottey College suitemate, Leslie Ater. Afterward, Lamar Savage fans thanked me for my story in The Denver Post.
I noted the frustration among parents and educators that the legislature was focusing on mascots instead of devastating budget cuts. The school district had already laid off 40 staffers, and no relief was in sight.
And I reported on the respectful embrace of Indian culture at Lamar High School.
“Student-made metal sculptures, some depicting American Indians, stand guard outside. Inside, the walls are a kaleidoscope of colors as a result of senior class art projects that have included elaborate and sophisticated murals. The Class of 1984 painted a camera with a roll of film spooling from it, an image of an American Indian among the frames. An enormous drawing of an Indian man, courtesy of the Class of 1978, dominates the cafeteria,” I wrote.
“Signs taped to the wall advertise yearbooks for sale and Savage Pride. ‘Some wish for it. We work for it. #SavageNation.’ ”
The respect for Indian culture really struck me.
I grew up in South Dakota, home to nine Indian reservations and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, when U.S. Army troops killed more than 150 Lakota Sioux. The incident is viewed as a watershed moment that ended the way of life for Native Americans on the plains.
Members of the American Indian Movement took over the town of Wounded Knee in 1973 to protest conditions on the reservation. I was in high school at the time, and there were jokes that AIM stood for “Assholes in Moccasins.”
In fact, I don’t remember hearing many good things about Indians while growing up.
Then I landed my first newspaper job after college, in Gallup, N.M. Gallup was sandwiched between the Navajo and Zuni reservations and about 70 percent of county residents were Native American. I became entranced with their artwork, their way of life and their sense of humor, while still mindful of Gallup’s reputation of taking advantage of Indians.
I realized, just as John Dunbar did in the movie “Dances with Wolves,” that everything I had been taught about these people was wrong.
Because Lamar was repeatedly singled out as having the worst mascot name, I expected to see cartoonish and insulting images of, well, savages, when I visited, but it turns out they got rid of those years back.
I interviewed several Native American students high school students, including Shania Jo Runningrabbit, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and a Lamar native.
“We don’t use Savages in a derogatory sense,” she said. “It’s a pride thing.”
Junior Rafael Gonzales told me he couldn’t imagine tribal officials visiting the school and being offended because, “We honor their culture.”
The most recent Post article quoted Lamar graduates who feel differently, including Stephanie Davis, who graduated in 2006 and now lives in Denver.
“Honestly, it makes it hard for me to be proud of the town that I grew up in,” she told the sportswriter. “Whenever I think about my high school, that’s what I think about. I think about the mascot. I think about how it portrays Native Americans in the community… .”
Other schools have changed their mascots.
The year I started at the Rocky Mountain News, 1993, Arvada High School dropped its name Redskins and became the Reds. A bulldog replaced the Indian mascot.
One of my former editors, whom I worked with in Gallup and at The Albuquerque Tribune, graduated from Arvada High School in 1969. John Moore was editor of the high school newspaper, the Arrow. He doesn’t remember people questioning the name Redskins.
“My sense was that it was a historical thing, “ he said.
“But when you think about it, we were in the suburbs with a mostly white student body. If I had been more mature, if I would have seen the broader picture, I might have editorialized against it.”
But he admitted that he wasn't invested in the name because he didn’t attend Arvada High until his junior year.
During the legislative debate over the Salazar-Ulibarri bill, Arapahoe High School in Littleton was frequently mentioned. The school kept the name Warriors but developed a relationship with the Arapaho Nation on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. It redesigned its logo and the school gym in 1995 was renamed in honor of an Arapaho elder.
I didn’t know until the bill was introduced that a section in the Declaration of Independence outlining grievances against the king refers to the British riling up “those merciless Indian savages.”
As predicted, the bill passed the Democratic-controlled House and died in the Republican-controlled Senate. I was relieved, for Lamar’s sake.
But in only five years the sentiment has changed so much.
“It’s 2020,” the Post wrote. “Time to bury the hatchets, don’t you think? And the teepees. And the war paint. And the headdresses. And the stereotypes.”
But I felt that Lamar went out of its way to shatter stereotypes. I still do.
I asked Superintendent Dave Tecklenburg if he read the sports column. He said he did but right now he’s focusing on other matters. The district just had to make $1 million in budget cuts. And students have been out of school since March and discussions are underway on how to bring everyone back.
“Making sure our kids and our staff are safe is our No. 1 priority,” he said.