As our country grapples with systemic racism, it is more important than ever to grapple with how that racism manifests in our own community. At Cheyenne Mountain High School, my alma mater, the school still employs “the Indian” as its mascot. It is time for that to change.
I attended CMHS from 2013 to 2017. Students donned headdresses and sometimes did a “tomahawk chop” to cheer on the school’s sports teams at games. My physical education classes were taught in a massive gymnasium with a mural depicting the appearance of a Native American. At a school that is nearly 80% white, the “Indian” moniker and all the stereotypes that followed it were unavoidable.
Surely the District 12 School Board is aware of the violent history the mascot evokes. Colorado settlers did not stop at taking Native American lands, they also appropriated Native American culture and customs, often using these appropriations to ingrain the idea that Native Americans were not equals. “Honoring the culture,” a justification many continue to use, was the permissive refrain to which settlers clung. As writer Simon Moya-Smith notes, “[w]hen the status of a Native American is demoted to that of a caricature, we are objectified and diminished as a people. We become entertainment, not fellow citizens.” Recognizing the clear mistake of using these mascots, the NCAA adopted years ago a policy to remove them from all teams in the association.
Cheyenne Mountain High School’s mascot does not just recall a racist history, it perpetuates it. A decade and a half ago, the American Psychological Associated called for the immediate retirement of similar mascots. The APA cited a “growing body of social science literature” that indicates such mascots harm the self-esteem of Native American young people as well as send a signal to white students that culturally abusive behavior is acceptable. If Cheyenne Mountain High School maintains its mascot, even when there is so much evidence to show just how harmful it is, what message does that send about whom a CMHS education serves?
This is not the first time the district has reckoned with the school’s plainly racist mascot, nor am I the first to push to change the mascot. In 2016, district Superintendent Walt Cooper announced certain changes, possibly in response to a student petition that had circulated. Cooper announced that the mascot would not change, but that it was important to portray the mascot “correctly.” The mural in the school’s main gymnasium was removed and “cheers, chants or actions that stereotype” were banned. But the mascot stayed.
Cooper also announced that the district would seek to affiliate itself with a Native American tribe; I recall such an affiliation being announced to us at a school assembly. It is my belief that any existing affiliation with a Native American tribe, especially if it involves financial support to the tribe or allows students at the school to be educated on Colorado’s history of Native American exclusion, be maintained. If CMHS changes its mascot, it will still owe reparations for the damaging portrayals of Native Americans that it perpetuated over decades.
I did not write this piece to condemn, but to ask that the school district recognize its ongoing mistake, move into a place of growth, and change the mascot. Racism is something white people in our district have a responsibility to confront: I hope that this conversation becomes one of many aimed at eradicating systemic racism in all its forms at Cheyenne Mountain.
Hank Sparks is a 2017 alum of Cheyenne Mountain High School. He is studying government at Harvard College.