A perverse paradox of the Vietnam War — destroying a town to save it — resurfaced last spring in legislation meant to safeguard the identity of Colorado’s American Indians. The measure as it turns out could erase even some bona fide tributes to Native American culture — consequences that, we hope, were unintended.
Senate Bill 116, adopted by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor, banned the use of American Indian-themed mascots by public schools in Colorado. Ruling Democrats at the Capitol deemed almost all such mascots offensive to American Indians.
The ban was touted as a way to combat bigoted stereotypes of America’s original inhabitants and to restore their dignity.
Although that goal was laudable, the resulting law underscores the folly of one-size-fits-all measures that purport to speak for an entire people. A pending lawsuit filed this year against the new law by the Native American Guardian’s Association made that clear. It’s an American Indian organization that supports the use of some of Colorado’s high school mascots, like the “Indians” of Yuma High School in northeastern Colorado.
And as a commentary published in our news affiliate Colorado Politics explains, the across-the-board ban, which takes effect next year, will backfire in a couple of ways. It not only will cost underfunded rural public schools a lot of money, but it also will expunge some schools’ efforts to preserve and revere the image of Native Americans.
Former state Senate Majority Leader and Treasurer Mark Hillman, a lifelong rural Coloradan, spotlights two minuscule, rural school districts that will be affected. One of them, in southern Colorado’s Sun Luis Valley, faces what Hillman calls “a heart-breaking conundrum” over its “Indians” mascot.
“Just three years ago, the community supported construction of a $31 million new school. A Ute artist worked with the school to replace the long-time ‘mean-looking’ Indian logo,” Hillman writes.
“Because the Utes were expert horsemen, the new logo depicts a silhouetted Ute rider on horseback in front of the Ute trail portion of the Old Spanish Trail. Behind the rider, school colors outline the Sangre de Cristo (red) and San Juan (black) mountains. … A Southern Ute tribe representative blessed the groundbreaking and attended the ribbon cutting, expressing appreciation of the culturally relevant manner in which MVS embraced tribal heritage.”
Yet, the Southern Ute Council declined the approval necessary under the new law for the school and district to keep the imagery. So, the expenditure and the eloquent tribute will be in vain.
Coloradans, recent and long-standing, have a shared culture that expands and evolves with each newcomer. Colorado’s first peoples, including the Arapaho, the Cheyenne and the Ute, originally defined our region. Our state’s extensive, centuries-old Hispanic roots, with their origins in the old Spanish empire, have fundamentally shaped Colorado history, as well.
In the same way, today’s immigrants from nations as wide ranging as Mexico, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Russia are influencing Colorado’s culture, politics, economics and overall image.
Denigrating or stigmatizing any of those groups obviously has no place in any public institution. But neither does blocking efforts to celebrate them.