MHS totem pole

The totem pole on the football field at Montrose High School could be part of outlawed Native American imagery.

Continuing to use Native American mascots will cost public schools a pretty penny, under Senate Bill 116, which re-passed the Senate on Thursday and is bound to the governor’s desk after clearing the House on Friday.

Any school that has an agreement with a federally recognized tribe that sanctions the use of a Native mascot would be spared a $25,000 monthly penalty that would be imposed otherwise for continuing to use the prohibited mascots and symbolism.

It is not entirely clear how the bill, if it becomes law, would affect Montrose High School, home of the Montrose Indians.

“At one time, we did have an agreement with the tribe,” said Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who voted against the bill. “That will have to be confirmed, or renewed. It’s in the hands of the Montrose County School District.”

A district spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment. In March, the district said it has always maintained a collaborative and respectful relationship with Native leaders and that in February, student leaders from MHS met with the Ute Indian Museum director, who advised them to keep working with the Ute tribes.

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, was among bill sponsors in the House. She said, based on conversations with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes, there is not a formal agreement between them and Montrose County School District.

“It might have been a handshake (agreement) a while ago, but there is no formal agreement,” she said.

The bill, titled Prohibit American Indian Mascots, would bar the use of Native mascots by public schools, including charter and institute schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.

Public schools that continue to use a Native mascot after June 1, 2022, would be subject to a monthly fine of $25,000, payable to the state education fund.

But the fine would not apply to schools that have an agreement dated prior to June 30 of this year with a recognized tribe.

The tribes can revoke such agreements at any time. Also exempted from the penalty are public schools operated by a tribe, or with the approval of a tribe, and within the boundaries of a that tribe’s reservation.

The bill further allows mascots culturally affiliated with tribes, as determined by tribal governments, in the context of relationships designed to educate public school students about a Native American history. Sponsors said the measure would not, for example, affect the Ouray schools, because they are named for Chief Ouray; they do not use a Native mascot.

The bill states the use of “derogatory American Indian mascots across Colorado creates an unsafe learning environment for American Indian students by having serious negative impacts on those students’ mental health and by promoting bullying … (mascots) teach non-American Indian children inaccurate information about American Indian culture and teach them that it is acceptable to participate in culturally abusive and prejudicial behaviors.”

The measure goes on to detail how Native children were forcibly taken from families at the dawn of the 20th century and placed into boarding schools, which stripped them of their heritage to make them assimilate into white culture.

Offensive mascots followed, with LaVeta High School becoming the “Redskins” in 1925; other schools declared their use of the mascots was intended to honor Native people. But, bill sponsors say, the majority of such mascots trade on racist stereotypes.

McLachlan said it is time to change, as Natives have been asking for 30 years for people to stop making them and their culture into mascots. Although some schools changed — Arapahoe High has an agreement with the Arapahoe Nation and forged a partnership — about 21 schools in the state, including Montrose, continue using Native American mascots and/or symbols.

“We finally decided we needed to do what has been asked of people for a very long time, and make it a mandatory thing. Most of the mascots are degrading to Native American tribes,” McLachlan said.

“They’re kind of making fun of people who are real people. It was just too much. People were being made fun of for no particular reason. At a school, what do you say if you’re (for example) one of three Native Americans?”

Coram said he did believe there was an arrangement for MHS. “I’ve had lots of Native Americans who talked to me about it, that it has been an honor for them to be recognized. I never had anyone from the tribe contact me and tell me how bad it is.”

Those who hold that making Natives mascots is derogatory can have their opinions, he said, but “I don’t think that’s the majority opinion.”

Coram also took exception to the monthly fine for schools that don’t have agreements, and which do not change, calling it nonsense.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to collect it. I think this is still, once again, a matter of local control. If you took a survey in Montrose County, what do you think the results would be?” he said.

State Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, was another “no” vote. He said the bill doesn’t give schools enough time to transition before hitting them with hefty fines no school can afford. “Montrose has always had a great relationship with the tribe,” he said.

The Ute tribes are open to working with the Montrose schools to help find other ways to foster school pride, said McLachlan.

“School pride comes more from the community than from a mascot. People don’t like change, but change is appropriate if the mascot is hurting anybody,” she said. “I really like Sen. Coram, but sometimes, we disagree.”

A previously established commission will be checking in with schools that still have Native mascots after next June.

McLachlan said the hope is to see schools make a good-faith effort and that they could apply for BEST funding to help remove problematic mascots and images from school property.

“I hope nobody has to pay that (fine). This is not a money-maker. I’m hoping they take a year and say, ‘this is a good change to be making,’” she said.

McLachlan said the governor’s office has given every indication that Gov. Jared Polis will sign the bill into law.

“The Native Americans have been asking for this for 30 years. It is probably time somebody listened to the people who this actually affects,” McLachlan said.

“ … People are not mascots.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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