MHS totem pole

The totem pole on the football field at Montrose High School could be part of outlawed Native American imagery if a bill passes prohibiting Native American mascots at schools.

After 81 years, the Washington Redskins professional football team dropped “Redskins” from the franchise’s name after more than a decade of scrutiny. The Cleveland Indians baseball team also dropped their name after 100 years, following the Washington Football Team’s lead within the professional sports arena.

Those same types of conversations are now taking place at the amateur level across Colorado school districts after lawmakers proposed a bill to ban use of American Indian mascots by public schools, charter schools and universities. Senate Bill 21-116 states the use of such imagery as mascots creates an unsafe learning environment for Native American students, impacting those students’ mental health and promoting bullying.

If passed, SB 21-116 would require all schools with Native American mascots, including some Montrose schools, to change the mascots, otherwise a monthly $25,000 fine would be imposed for schools that continued to display them after June 1, 2022. Fines would be payable to the state education fund.

Locally, the Montrose High School Indians and the Centennial Middle School Braves would likely be affected by such legislation.

MCSD Public Information Officer Matt Jenkins said MHS’s student government met with CJ Bradford, the director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose.

“Montrose County School District (MCSD) and Montrose High School (MHS) have always maintained a very collaborative and respectful relationship with our local Native American leaders. In January and February 2021, student leaders from Montrose High School’s student government met with CJ Bradford, a (Lakota Sioux tribe member) and director of our local Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. Ms. Bradford advised students to continue working with the Ute-Mountain Ute, Northern Ute, and Southern Ute tribes.”

Jenkins added how MHS hopes to foster stronger relationships with the tribes and honor their heritage and teachings through use of the high school mascot. Student council is currently reaching out to the tribes to seek their perspectives.

Historically, members of the Ute tribes settled across western Colorado with a prominent presence around Montrose.

Senator Jessie Danielson, and Reps. Adrienne Benavidez and Barbara McLachlan are sponsoring the bill.

Within the legislation’s declaration it states, “ … the general assembly declares that passing legislation to retire all American Indian mascots in the state will provide another step toward justice and healing to the descendants of the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, most notably the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as well as other American Indians in Colorado who have been harmed or offended by these discriminatory mascots.”

The bill also highlights how Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order to establish a commission to study Native American imagery in public schools in 2015. Native American leaders from around the state visited four schools that elected to be part of the conversation: Strasburg, Loveland, Eaton and Lamar. Following those visits, the commission recommended the removal of Native American imagery and nomenclatures in schools across Colorado. While a few state schools have voluntarily abandoned their Native American mascots, SB 21-116 notes how “public sentiment is moving in favor of abandoning these discriminatory mascots.”

If and when the legislation concerning Native American mascots changes, Jenkins said MCSD will adjust accordingly.

State Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican and an MHS Indians alumnus, views the mascot as a way to honor the Native American heritage in the area.

“In the past, I have always supported the local decisions,” he said. “I think in the case of Montrose, as an example, they have reached out to the Indian nation several years ago and the Ute Indian logo is an honored tradition as far as Montrose High School is concerned.

“I am a Montrose Indian graduate and support the name because in our community, it’s used as honor and respect,” he added. “There’s nothing disrespectful about that. Our community has been very honored to have the Ute Indian Museum.”

Throughout his visits across his legislative district, including to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, Coram said the conversation about Indian mascots being a symbol of disrespect has never come up.

“I don’t think (Indians is) a racist statement to use,” Coram said. “I’ve been across the reservation where their mascot names are Braves and Redskins and everything else. Somehow it hasn’t risen to a level that I’m aware of in the Ute Nation that we are disrespecting them by using that name.”

Coram said the bill has not come before him yet, but he questioned the constitutionality of the bill’s $25,000 a month fine. Still, he noted that the priority needs to be on educating students.

“I think we need to concentrate more on getting children back in the schools, rather than what the mascot name is.”

Lauren Brant is a staff writer and digital content coordinator for the Montrose Daily Press.

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