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Mascot issue to be approached carefully

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DENVER – Calm and cerebral may be the route high school mascot issues will take in coming months, as some of the state’s American Indian educators and others begin conversations with Colorado school districts whose high schools have “Indian” mascots and names.

The dialog will take place between the educators and officials representing some of the 15 schools with names like “Savages,” “Redskins,” “Indians,” or “Reds” instead of the 300-plus with names like “Panthers,” “Bears,” “Demons,” or “Pirates.”

It will be educator-to-educator, said Prof. Donna Langston, president of the Colorado Indian Education Foundation, which has been charged with mediating the touchy high school mascot issue after a bill in the state legislature to address the issue was withdrawn amid cries of outrage at penalties proposed in a cash-short economy.

The bill would have required high schools with American Indian mascots or names to stop using them unless the school got approval from the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs or another entity, with fines of $1,000 per month to the state education fund suggested as the penalty for noncompliance. Some high school officials were also concerned that thousands of dollars would have to be spent to remove logos or other symbols found to be offensive.

“To the extent that our culture has become aware of the disrespect that some mascots bring to Native Americans, my first goal has been achieved,” said state Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, a member of the Comanche Nation, who introduced and later withdrew the bill.

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Langston believes much of the controversy involves a lack of understanding, in part that sacred elements are involved in the use of feathers, paint and drums.

The anticipated meetings will be educator-to-educator, but will also be parent-to-parent and grandparent-to-grandparent, since most of the participants will have family as well as professional roles, said Langston, who is director of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado – Denver.

Langston notes the mascot issue has been around “for years and years,” having been introduced by the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s.

Colorado has a model for working with tribes in a respectful way concerning names and mascots, she said, pointing to Arapahoe High School in Centennial, which has had a long-standing relationship with the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, one of whose members created the school’s “warrior” logo.

Another aspect CIEF will work with is the Colorado High School Activities Association and standards of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

“These kids are going to be going to college, and they won’t want to say, ‘I was captain of the Savages,’” Langston said, noting the NCAA policy is “the standard widely recognized nationwide by educators.”