Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Tribal nations and Native people residing in Colorado have a lot to celebrate.

The state legislative session wrapped up in early June and a slew of bills benefiting tribes in the state were passed and signed into law as recently as this week.

Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills on Monday: one extends in-state tuition to students who do not live in the state but are citizens of 48 tribes with historical ties to the state; and the second is the prohibition of the use of Native themed mascots by “public schools, including charter and institute charter schools, and public institutions of higher education.”

The third bill was signed back in mid-May that allows for federally recognized tribes the ability to certify its own foster homes. Previously, only a county department of human or social services or a child placement agency had the ability to do so.

Polis signed the foster homes bill at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and said the foster homes bill will help make Colorado’s laws more aligned with federal law that already exist under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“The federally recognized tribes have an authority to certify foster homes, but this bill makes sure that the county department of human services or health can contract with the federally recognized tribes to better place Native children who live outside of their jurisdiction with Native American families,” Polis said at the bill signing. “This bill will increase the number of Native children that are placed with Native American families, and by doing that, it’ll help make sure that the important aspects of Native American heritage and culture can be passed down intergenerationally.”

Fort Lewis College boasts the largest percentage of Native students at higher education institutions in the state, 41 percent, and they come from 177 nations, tribes and villages. The college offers free tuition to American Indian and Alaska Native students as part of a deal with the federal government. The school was a military base and Indian boarding school in the 1800s when the government offered to hand the school property to the state. The deal: "the property must remain an educational center and be inclusive of Native American students, who would be admitted tuition free, and offered an education equal to that of other students,” according to the school’s website.

While the recent bill extending in-state tuition to tribal citizens of 48 tribes with historical ties to the state wasn’t signed at the college, it has the potential to increase those numbers at other state schools.

Colorado Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera said on Indian Country Today’s newscast that the legislation will help remove barriers for Native students. She added that students will also be eligible for opportunity fund stipends, state-funded financial aid, as well as private financial programs.

“It just felt great to be able to remove one more barrier, to give one more opportunity to help people who really are not pursuing education to the extent that other people are. I think 19 percent of 18- to 24-year-old American Indian, Alaska Native students are enrolled in college and this is compared to 41 percent of the overall U.S. population in 2019,” Primavera said. “So to give kids a better opportunity just felt really great.”

(Related: Calling Ivy Leagues, other colleges to do more)

Mascot removal

Colorado also became the most recent state to prohibit the use of Native-themed mascots, the fifth state to do so. Schools will have until June 1, 2022, to make the changes or face a $25,000 fine for each month of continued use of a Native-themed mascot.

However, there are three exceptions for schools that want to continue use of a Native-themed mascot:

  • Any agreement that exists prior to June 30, 2021, between a federally recognized tribe and a public school, although the tribe has the right and ability to revoke the agreement at any time;
  • Any public school that is operated by a tribe or with the approval of a tribe and existing within the boundaries of the tribe's reservation;
  • The ability of a tribe to create and maintain a relationship or agreement with a public school that fosters goodwill, emphasizes education and supports a curriculum that teaches American Indian history, and encourages a positive cultural exchange. Any such agreement may allow any mascot that is culturally affiliated with the tribe, as determined at the discretion of the tribe's governing body.

Donna Chrisjohn, Sicangu Lakota and Diné, said one of those schools that will not have to change is Arapahoe High School and excluding them, there are currently 25 schools that will have to make a change.

She was at the bill signing ceremony Monday and described the atmosphere as both surreal and joyous. Chrisjohn works as a paralegal and has been advocating against Native-themed mascots for 40 years.

Similar legislation was introduced in 2016 but did not make it out of its House committee.

“We still are only the fifth state in the United States to adopt a bill or to adopt this type of legislation,” Chrisjohn said. “So we still have 45 other states to put in the work.”

One thing that Chrisjohn has found interesting about the Native-themed mascot movement is how it’s worked from the top-down instead of the bottom-up; with college and professional sports teams prohibiting the use of Native themed mascots before k-12 schools.

“The work really should have been done in public schools to begin with because as taxpayers we pay for funding for public schools so we're actually paying for this detriment, for this denigrating environment for our students,” she said. “Not just Indigenous students [but] for non-Indigenous students because they then adopt a stereotype, and a racial profile of what Indigenous people are, when we are not what these mascots portray us to be.”

While there is still progress to be made in other areas to help Native communities, Colorado has taken positive steps to assist tribes in the state. 

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