American Indian mascots draw controversy. They’re most visible as the logos of sports teams… and some in Colorado call some of the symbols racist. Efforts in the state legislature to ban or faze out the mascots at schools have failed. That hasn’t stopped some schools from working with American Indians to find the middle ground, as Bente Birkeland reports.
About on hour east of Denver, sits tiny Strasburg. It was here, in 1870 that the last spike was hammered in the nation’s coast-to-coast railroad. And this is home to the Indians, the high school’s sports teams. Several hundred students from elementary to high school enter the gym to the beat of drums.
This pow-wow will span three hours, and include many dances… dances with hoops, dances for prairie chickens, dances for celebration.
“It’s part of who we are as native people,” said hoop dancer Jasmine Bell. “We don’t just perform, but we dance from our hearts and we dance with our spirit.”
This ceremony is the step in something new – a cultural dialog and partnership between American Indians and the school. Lindsey Nichols a recent graduate, led the project. The idea grew from her fascination of American Indians and what she wasn’t learning much about in the classroom.
“When I got to high school I realized that we don’t really learn about the specific tribes who used to live in Strasburg and the surrounding areas. We just learn a general native American segment in our history class.
Nichols wanted to know more about the school mascot and the Northern Arapaho Tribe that called the area home before the arrival of settlers. Members now live on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Strasburg’s mascot is less controversial than some. It shows a portrait of an Indian elder wearing a headdress, adorned with feathers. A tribal member is currently updating the artwork.
“The biggest change would be more sharp features, the eyes are a lot different. We were very close with feathers,” said Michelle Woodard, the school’s athletic director. “Using the Indian headdress has been a very big tradition here at the school. We’ve had many teachers that have created artwork. We want to have the headdress on our uniforms on our t-shirts.”
Strasburg is not dropping the name Indians. That is not what the dialogue is about. It is about how the school can keep the name Indians, but do so respectfully.
“As a school we knew the right thing to do was to examine our mascot and determine whether it is respectful or not,” said Strasburg high school Principal Jeff Rasp.
Last year Rasp testified against a bill at the statehouse. The bill ultimately failed. It wanted schools to get permission from tribes to use mascots or face steep fines.
“I don’t think it’s the right route, if you come with a hammer. I think if it evolved from the community that’s going to effect the most long lasting and genuine change.”
The Governor’s office and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs re now attempting just that. They created a special group to visit four schools as a pilot, including Strasburg. The other schools include the Eaton Reds, Loveland Indians and Lamar Savages.
“We’re in the process of opening up lines of communication with tribal members,” said Dave Tecklenberg, the superintendent of the Lamar School District, which volunteered to participate.
So far Lamar has decided to keep the controversial Savages name and mascot. Tecklenberg said he’d consider pushing for a change, but only if that’s what the community wanted, right now they don’t.
“It’s just the tradition a rich tradition,” said Tecklenberg. “We’ve had several people, alumni, we’ve had it back to the early 1900s when Lamar was the Savages and it just has a long tradition.”
For Ben S. Ridgley a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s business council, the name Savages goes too far.
“It’s too harsh because we’re civilized, we’re not savages.”
But he and many others in his tribe don’t dispute American Indian mascots such as the Indians and warriors. Norman Paul Willow said mascots can help build awareness of native history and it’s modern issues and people.
“A mascot is kind of like a tribute to us, they recognize us. I feel pride that someone is using what we’ve been through. pride that someone is using what we’ve been through,” said Willow.
About thirty Colorado schools still use American Indian Mascots. For now the state will continue to develop partnerships between schools and tribes. At least one lawmaker says if the process stalls, he’ll look for a legislative fix. No matter what happens in the future, one member of the Northern Arapaho tribe urged everyone to respect what the name Indian is about. At the pow-wow he told the Strasburg “We’ve been through a lot and we’re still here.”