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‘Indian’ mascots and Native tuition occupy tribal caucus

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DENVER – Despite legislative proposals to curb offensive “Indian” high school names and mascots statewide, one Colorado tribal leader thinks the depictions should be done away with altogether.

“It’s 2010 – we don’t have to have those names,” said Ernest House Sr., chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “What that brings to the community is racism. In my opinion – do away with all Indian names.”

“Let’s look at the future of our Native American people. We want to live in a way (so) that people respect Native American people for our cultures.”

His remarks at this year’s annual Tribal/Legislative Caucus meeting Jan. 22 came as one bill affecting Indian tuition payments in Colorado was killed by its co-sponsor and another dealing with mascots may be modified.

“The (Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs) will evaluate the use of American Indian mascots by public high schools of school districts and institute charter high schools and either grant or deny approval of such use.” – Colorado Senate Bill 10-107

The first bill would have reduced the state’s reimbursement for out-of-state Native students’ tuition to Fort Lewis College in southwestern Colorado, though the Indian students themselves would still receive free tuition.

The state tuition reimbursement is under a century-old federal-state agreement to offset the transfer of thousands of acres of land and the state’s proposed cost-cutting attempt had met with heavy opposition.

The mascot measure, introduced by Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, of the Comanche Nation, could levy a $1,000-per-month fine against high schools that did not obtain approval for American Indian names or mascots, though Williams told caucus attendees the proposed fines may simply be “place-holders” for an undetermined means of ensuring accountability.

Colorado and Wisconsin, also considering a mascot measure, would be the first states to provide statutory relief against offensive Native depictions in high schools and charter schools.

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Fifteen-plus high schools in Colorado that have American Indian-related mascots would be required under the bill to submit them to a designated state entity for approval or disapproval, and, if they were disapproved, to stop using them and obtain approval of any alternate Native-themed mascot by mid-2013.

School districts would have to notify the target schools about the new policy and would notify the oversight board of the schools’ use of the mascots, with potential $1,000 monthly fines for non-compliance.

Although the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs was suggested as the monitoring and enforcing entity, Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, CCIA chair, and Matthew Box, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said they were concerned it would add another function to the already-burdened commission.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, one of several legislators at the meeting, said he hoped “we aren’t trying to be so politically correct to make ourselves feel good out of Denver that we aren’t forgetting their traditions down there” outside the metro area.

Box said anti-mascot measures should be implemented “respectfully and reciprocally” to avoid disrupting daily school activities or government-to-government relations.

The mascot issue had been under discussion for several years in the Indian community, and it was time to “try to clarify, straighten out, and rectify,” said Williams, who wants the measure to provide a way for schools to learn about Native people and tribes in a “continual process of education.”

Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver is a good model for such education, she said, noting that the school contacted Arapahoe tribal members about the school’s mascot in a way “that was appropriate and agreeable to both sides” and that resulted in a redesigned school logo and an ongoing relationship between the students and the tribe.

If schools were interested in contacting tribes about their cultures, CCIA has a list of more than 50 tribes that originally lived in Colorado, said Ernest House Jr., outgoing CCIA executive secretary, who worked with Williams and Darius Smith, director of Denver’s Anti-Discrimination Office, on the legislation.

Resolution of the mascot issue would be in keeping with renewed respect for Native culture over the last few years, indicated by President Barack Obama’s hosting of tribal leaders nationwide at the White House, Williams said.

“Indian kids go to school and are affected when they have a mascot,” she said, terming the legislation “an acknowledgment of our Indian past and right relationship and right naming.” Without a statute to prevent offensive mascot names, it’s possible nothing will change, she said.