Nearly three months after a surprising letter from state officials said that Johnson Elementary School’s Thunderbird mascot would have to be changed, representatives from Montrose County School District got the chance to present to a special session of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) Wednesday.
Public information officer Matt Jenkins and Jacob Price, the school psychologist at Johnson Elementary School who is also a registered member of the Pawnee tribe and a participant on the Montrose High School mascot committee, presented on behalf of the district.
“We had a two-part purpose for that presentation: one was to confirm with the commissioners that we do have plans in place for Montrose High School and Centennial Middle School, but also to plead our case that we really don’t feel like Johnson should have to be changed under both the spirit and the language of the statute,” Jenkins said.
The commission is expected to vote on the issue at a meeting in March.
A state law enacted last summer bans Native American mascots, which affects approximately two dozen schools around Colorado. Districts have until June 1 of this year to remove indigenous imagery or face $25,000 monthly fines.
While the statute states that schools can apply for competitive BEST grants to pay for the changes, mascot swaps are deemed a lower priority in the grant application pool. The district is not expecting to receive state financial support and is planning on paying for the changes locally.
State officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment on other sources of funding available to districts.
Montrose was one of five school districts with questions and concerns about Native American mascots invited to present at the Zoom meeting.
Price and Jenkins, who were the first presenters, did not receive any questions from commissioners. MCSD Superintendent Carrie Stephenson also attended the virtual meeting but did not present.
Price spoke about his advocacy work for changing offensive Native American mascots over the past 15 years, such as stopping a halftime routine featuring a human sacrifice with the Monty Montezuma mascot while he was at San Diego State University. He also serves as chair of the Indigenous Affairs Committee with the National Association of School Psychologists and also advocated for removing the Washington Redskins mascot.
Price said he was in “full, 100% agreement” with the new law — “there was no doubt in my mind that our high school mascot, the Montrose Indians, had to change.”
But he disagreed that the Thunderbird mascot should also need to be removed. He emphasized that he was speaking as a Native American individual, school psychologist and parent with children at both Johnson and MHS.
“I don’t feel that it depicts indigeneity or specific indigenous tribes or peoples as much as it does the mythical creatures that some tribes have in their storytelling past and their oral traditions,” Price said.
Since receiving the first letter from the CCIA in late October, the school district has already moved to soften the indigenous connotations of Johnson’s logo into a cartoon-esque bird, Price said.
“We feel like the Thunderbird mascot, with tweaks to the artwork and taking some of what would be considered indigeneity out of it and turning it to more of a cartoon figure, would meet the requirements for the Senate bill,” Price said.
The state law defines the applying imagery as a “name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom or tradition that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name for the school.”
At least two other schools in Colorado — Sangre de Cristo High School in Mosca and Hinkley High School in Aurora — have the Thunderbird mascot, but are not on the state’s list of noncompliant schools. This was not discussed at the Wednesday meeting.
When contacted for comment about the two other schools, a representative from the governor’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Other journalists seeking clarification from state officials have also received a similar blanket response.
The CCIA first alerted Stephenson in October that the school district would need to change Johnson’s Thunderbird mascot, in addition to the Indians at Montrose High School and the Braves at Centennial Middle School.
Stephenson responded in a letter in early November, saying that the district was already working on the MHS and Centennial mascot but that the school district should not need to change the Thunderbird mascot because it’s a cross-cultural symbol, does not depict a human being and would be cost-prohibitive.
The process for selecting new alternatives to replace the Indians and the Braves mascots is already well underway. The principals of both schools are expected to present the new choices at the Feb. 8 school board meeting.
If the CCIA votes in March that the Thunderbird mascot needs to go, the school district is prepared to comply and remove the mascot.
Removing the Thunderbird mascot at Johnson Elementary would be easier than for MHS and Centennial Middle School, Jenkins said, because the school itself is smaller and there are no sports uniforms to replace.
Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.