State Sen. Don Coram and Rep. Marc Catlin on Monday made known their intent to secure an agreement with local Native American tribes, the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, to preserve the Montrose High School mascot, the Indians.
Governor Jared Polis on June 28 signed into law Senate Bill 21-116, banning American Indian mascots in Colorado public schools.
The bill was introduced in February, passed June 4 and gave school districts until June 30, 2021 to reach agreements with nearby tribes — the only way to be exempted from a $25,000 monthly fine outlined in the law for districts that don’t comply.
“Frankly, the timeframe totally sucked as far as that goes,” Coram told the Montrose Daily Press in reference to the time allotted to school districts to reach their agreements.
Coram said he didn’t think the state would be able to fine school districts. “I think that’s a plot to scare everyone, but if we get the agreement with the tribe, I don’t see anyone enforcing that,” he said.
The Montrose County School District confirmed having requested meetings with the tribes but did not comment further.
The Southern Ute Tribal chairman did not immediately respond to a voicemail left Monday afternoon.
Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Hart said Monday he hadn’t yet received anything in writing about the matter, although it’s his understanding the legislators are trying to work out something to keep the Indians mascot in Montrose.
Coram said Hart should be soon receiving his letter, which was mailed a week ago.
“When you say Indians, do you mean 574 federally recognized Indian tribes that you have to work with? ‘Indians’ means they have to consult with all 574 tribes,” Hart said.
Hart noted the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe had supported the bill banning the use of Native American mascots in most circumstances. He himself opposes such use.
“It really depends on that question. If a tribe wishes to choose their own, they can, because that’s how they are as Native people. For the non-Natives, that’s a separate, different issue,” Hart said.
Coram said the bill’s provision that school districts work with tribes if they want to keep a Native-based mascot was reasonable, and he doesn’t think Montrose has disrespected the Ute tribes.
“In some communities, I think the mascot has been a bit disrespected, but I don’t think that’s the case with Montrose at all. I don’t think there is a community in the state that honors our Native Americans more than this community,” Coram said.
Hart isn’t optimistic about Coram’s chances at getting an agreement. “They can come and talk to us, but it’s probably not going to go very far,” he said.
Once an official request comes to him, the matter would have to be placed on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council’s scoping agenda. Coram could make a presentation as part of the tribe’s legislative process in making a final decision.
The mascots law affects about two dozen public schools in Colorado that use Native American symbolism and mascots. Replacing the Montrose Indians mascot could cost between $500,000 and $750,000, because of the changes to sports uniforms, art and insignia on sports courts, facades, signs and walls.
Schools such as Montrose that need to change the mascot can apply for Building Excellent Schools Today grant from the state of Colorado to help offset the costs.
Prior to the mascot issue, the Ute Mountain Utes have been working with the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose to promote more tribal histories in the schools.
“(Chief) Ouray’s house is there in Montrose. The Ute Museum is there. That is what we were targeting, getting more awareness to the school about who the Utes were,” Hart said.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer.