The New West Confronts the Old West at a Colorado University

The "winning" of the West underlies the identity of the University of Denver, an institution whose day of reckoning over Old West issues is at hand.

The “winning” of the West underlies the identity of the University of Denver (DU), a 149-year-old institution whose day of reckoning over Old West issues is at hand, starting with the stubborn resurgence of a former mascot—frontiersman “Denver Boone”—and ending with a study of the institution’s relationship to an infamous massacre.

Some DU students (known as “Denver Pioneers”) objected in March when Boone’s final demise was announced because university officials regarded him as a “polarizing figure.” Although Boone had been ousted 15 years before, he was kept on limited life-support only as an unofficial “image” and a “celebration of the past,” but even that is at an end because a new mascot choice is underway and it excludes Boone.

His ouster caused an outcry from Boone fans, including from the author of athletic news on LetsGoDU.blogspot.com, which posted a pro-Boone petition on a final blog June 3 as the author noted, “Like Boone, LetsGoDU is leaving on top.”

The Boone mascot conflict occurred alongside a controversy between members of a campus organization that erected a display to mark Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week in April and other students whose counter-display marked not only the Jewish Holocaust but that of other groups, including Native Americans.

Both the Boone and Holocaust disputes followed cowboy- and Indian-themed parties last year by two Greek houses that later apologized publicly to the community and DU’s Native Student Alliance for their insensitivity. (Related story: “Apology for Cowboys and Indians Party a Step in the Right Direction”)

Johanna Leyba, DU assistant provost for inclusive excellence, said at the time, “We need to find ways to halt the perpetuation of stereotypes” as shown in the face paint and feathers worn by the “Indian” partygoers.

An awareness of colonialism may be growing on campus, Leyba said, noting that it was a non-Native student who wondered whether “How the West Was Won” might be offensive as a theme for Pioneer Days 2012, an annual event for incoming DU students, and the theme was dropped in an “example of DU’s self-policing.”

A more progressive side has been emerging in June. At mid-month DU is in the third of four phases of mascot selection via a process used by DU’s marketing and communications division along with a professional research firm. Although there’s a 76-member Pioneer Mascot Steering Committee of students, alumni and faculty, wider input is accepted via DUmascot@du.edu or online at facebook.com/DUmascot. Pioneer Point People have been designated to receive community feedback.

A successful candidate for a diversity-embodying—or at least neutral—mascot (“the Denver Pioneer of today and the future”) is expected to be introduced at a celebration in the fall quarter. As a nod to tradition, DU notes that a number of things will not change, including the school colors, athletic logos, and identity: “We are, and will remain, the Denver Pioneers.”

Progress aside, some of the Old West’s unsavory deeds will come to light as DU prepares for its own 150th anniversary and the related 150th commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, an unprovoked attack perpetrated under the leadership of Army Col. John Chivington who is said to have helped his friend, John Evans, then-Territorial Governor of Colorado, found DU.