In a fit of orchestrated indignation last spring, our Legislature banned the use of American Indian-themed mascots by public schools in Colorado. The Democratic majority at the Capitol deemed such mascots offensive to American Indians.
About 25 schools around the state were affected, although several have started hunting for new mascots since the law was passed. The law allowed schools that have agreements with tribes to continue using certain names. All other schools must comply by June — or face fines of $25,000 a month.
Yes, $25,000 a month. For having the wrong mascot. Perhaps the state’s predominantly urban-suburban lawmakers assumed there’s a lot of spare cash in the till at the rural school districts where most of the remaining American Indian mascots can be found.
This week, an organization representing — surprise! — some American Indians filed suit to halt enforcement of the new law. Ironic? Or, just inevitable? It might shock Colorado lawmakers to learn that not all American Indians share the same view on this issue.
The action Tuesday in U.S. District Court challenged the measure on constitutional and other grounds. The plaintiff is the nonprofit Native American Guardian’s Association; the defendants include Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser and Kathryn Redhorse, who is the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.
It’s a deserved comeuppance, if only a modest one, for a Legislature that evidently has too much time on its hands. Lawmakers certainly have more pressing issues to take up while they are in session. They also are begging for litigation by trying to impose an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all standard on such a subjective consideration. And in doing so, they are trampling the local control constitutionally granted the state’s 178 wide-ranging, diverse school districts.
The Legislature’s elitist decree from on high is bound to divide Coloradans. Whatever woke lawmakers might think of a moniker like Yuma High School’s Indians, plenty of locals and alumni in Yuma take great pride in the name.
And according to the lawsuit, some American Indians feel the same way.
In their federal court filing, the plaintiffs describe themselves as, “Native Americans who subscribe to the idea of reappropriation, and who have and will continue to petition school districts and educational entities to use Native American names as honorifics in order to reclaim their meaning and to teach non-Native American students in public schools about Native American history.”
The Guardian’s Association was joined in its suit by several other American Indian plaintiffs, including two students from Yuma High School as well as an alumnus of Lamar’s high school in southeastern Colorado. The plaintiffs are of Cherokee, Chippewa and Diné heritage, according to the court tracking site Law360. They said they want to honor their Cherokee and Chippewa peoples by keeping Yuma High’s “Indians” mascot and their Diné heritage by standing up for the “Savages” mascot of Lamar High School.
Attorney William Brotherton, a member of the Guardian’s Association and an enrolled member of the Abenaki Nation of Missiquoi in Vermont, derided the proliferating bans on American Indian imagery. He told Law360 he is fighting “this blanket decision — typically by white liberals — that Native Americans don’t know what’s best for them, and they do.”
There are, of course, many American Indians who feel otherwise. But it’s that diversity that seems to elude policymakers in Colorado and across the country. Sweeping bans that presume to protect the sensibilities of an entire people can wind up offending some of the same people.
William Trachman, of Lakewood-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is representing the Guardians Association in its court action, said the lawsuit is challenging the law’s constitutionality because it bans all American Indian names and imagery but does not do so for other groups. It’s an equal-protection argument under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The lawsuit also contends the Colorado law on its face violates First Amendment rights by preventing schools from using names or images that honor Natives Americans.
None of which is to say American Indian mascots shouldn’t — or should — be regarded as offensive. But American Indians aren’t of one mind on the matter. Shocker, right? Just as the members of any race, creed, nationality or ethnicity don’t share the same views on most issues.
It’s only too bad the elected lawmakers behind such posturing in lieu of sound policy don’t have to answer for it in court. Perhaps the sponsors — state Sen. Jesse Danielson and state Reps. Adrienne Benavidez and Barbara McLachlan — could take the witness stand and explain to the plaintiffs why, as American Indians, they are not supposed to root for Yuma.