The state commission charged with adjudicating which Colorado schools must expunge their “American Indian mascots” devolved further into a kangaroo court last week. Chaired by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs was required to “identify each public school in the state that is using an American Indian mascot” by July 28 of last year.
More than eight months later, the commission is suddenly considering whether to add seven new schools as potential violators for using “Thunderbird” as their mascot. At an April 6 meeting, CCIA began discussing whether these mascots violate the law which prohibits “names, symbols or images that depict or refer to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom or tradition.”
Ironically, when the commission released its initial list of schools with affected mascots last July, it did include one with a Thunderbird mascot – Johnson Elementary in Montrose which fields no teams and merely displays a Thunderbird logo.
So, how did CCIA find little Johnson Elementary but fail to notice at least seven other schools, including Aurora’s Hinkley High School and Cherry Creek’s Thunder Ridge Middle School, that use the same mascot?
That’s anyone’s guess because random enforcement and inconsistent application of the law is becoming a hallmark of CCIA. Moreover, nothing in statute empowers the commission to approve new mascots.
For example, commissioners voted to allow Grand Junction Central High and Weldon Valley School to retain “Warriors” as their mascot after each submitted plans to eliminate Indian imagery and simply use a “W” as its logo. Since Warrior certainly isn’t a term exclusive to American Indians, that seems sensible.
CCIA also approved a plan by Eaton School District to continue to use “Reds” as its mascot. Prior to 1962, Eaton teams were called “Fightin’ Reds,” based primarily on the school’s dominant uniform color. When Eaton merged with nearby Galeton which used Indians as its mascot, the school began to incorporate an Indian into its identity. Eaton satisfied CCIA with a plan to remove Indian images from its gym floor and elsewhere around its schools.
On the other hand, the commission has not approved similar requests from Lamar and Yuma, nor has it approved Montrose High School’s proposal to change from Indians to “Red Hawks.”
Lamar High School’s use of “Savages” has irritated activists for years, especially when a particularly heinous Indian mascot named “Chief Ugh-Lee” roamed the sidelines. But Lamar’s orange-and-black-clad athletes revel in their identity as fierce Savages, so like other schools, Lamar proposed keeping its nickname and replacing any Indian imagery with that of a bison.
So far, CCIA has resisted that proposal. Likewise, it refused to accept Yuma’s proposal to eliminate all Indian imagery, replace its “Indian” nickname with “Tribe” and use a simple “Y” as its logo. Yuma school board subsequently voted to go without a mascot altogether.
CCIA members appear obsessed with retribution rather than fairly applying the law. While Savages and Tribe certainly can apply to American Indians, they do not do so inherently, much less exclusively. Vikings were referred to as savages, and tribe routinely refers to various people groups either generally or specifically (e.g., Twelve Tribes of Israel). Merriam-Webster Dictionary mentions neither Indians nor Native Americans in either definition. When CCIA members approve sanitized Reds and Warriors but reject revamped Savages and Tribes, they are becoming a dictionary unto themselves and making up rules as they go.
Which brings us back to the commission’s tardy discovery of more Thunderbirds. When the mascot ban passed in 2021, CCIA assured legislators it was up to the task of implementing this law. Instead, the commission has routinely stonewalled affected schools by failing to provide meaningful or timely guidance. Commissioners won’t make a final ruling on these schools until May and have claimed for months that the law affords them no flexibility to extend the June 1 deadline.
When schools violate CCIA’s edict, they face fines of $25,000 per month, but the commission incurs no consequence for failing to do its job. CCIA is yet another example of government bureaucrats intoxicated with power and exercising that power devoid of common sense.
Mark Hillman served as Colorado Senate Majority Leader and State Treasurer.
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