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Colorado upholds historical treaties, bans American Indian mascots

Ernest House Jr., Walt Pourier and Darius Lee Smith (left to right), stand together for a photo following the signing of Colorado Bill SB21-166, at the Denver Indian Center on Wednesday, June 28. The bill prohibits the use of American Indian mascots by public schools, including charter and institute charter schools, and public institutions of higher education effective – June 1, 2022.
Photo Credit: courtesy Ernest House Jr.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently signed two historic bills, one upholding Native American treaty rights and another banning schools from using American Indian mascots in the State of Colorado. Senate Bill SB21-209 will pay reparations to the countless Native American families and their ancestors who were forcibly relocated from their homelands in Colorado. He signed the bills, SB21-166 and SB21-209, Wednesday, June 28 at the Denver Indian Center.  

“I’m so proud of the two bills that Governor Polis signed into law this week to honor our Native American Indian communities,” Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera shared on Twitter. “My sincere thanks to the legislators that made this possible as well as the leadership of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal leadership, leaders within the American Indian/Alaska Native communities in Colorado, and support from Tribal Nations across the country; their voices are invaluable, and we will continue to partner together in taking steps to address the centuries of harm and discrimination that they have faced.” 

“It was an honor to be a part of the bill signing event, alongside Chairman Heart from Ute Mountain Ute,” said Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin J. Baker. “The bill banning the use of Native American mascots is a win for all tribes living within the State of Colorado and Indian Country. I would like to thank the past leadership who initiated this project.”  

Senate Bill SB21-166 will prohibit the use of American Indian mascots by public schools, including charter and institute charter schools, and public institutions of higher education as of June 1, 2022.  

If schools do not comply by June 2022 the bill will impose a fine of $25,000 per month for each month that a school continues to use an American Indian mascot after such date, fines will be payable to the state education fund.  

Colorado schools with derogatory American Indian symbols or slurs will face monthly fines if not changed. Currently there are at least 25 schools that have mascots or symbols representing their class, but many have already switched their mascots to something less offensive. Schools with existing agreements about their mascot with the concurrent tribes will be exempt from the ban (i.e. Arapahoe High school and Strasburg High School).  

Joining the rest of the country in the move to abolish racist and derogatory symbols, the State of Colorado has already formed a geographic naming board that is working to rename specific mountains and open spaces within the state.  

Nationally, the NFL’s Washington State football team stopped using the slur from its name in 2020, the Cleveland’s MLB team is looking to rename and back in 2005 the NCAA banned the use of American Indian mascots.  

 “To see SB21-116 signed into law yesterday was unbelievable and a flood of memories came rushing back. It was even better seeing old and new friends who worked hard to get this across the finish line,” said former Colorado Commision of Indian Affairs Executive Director, Ernest House Jr. “This has been a long time coming from the early 2000’s at the University of Northern Colorado with the “Fightin’ Whities,” to seeing numerous pieces of legislation drafted and unfortunately die upon arrival in committee, to establishing a commission to bring awareness and dialogue to communities with American Indian mascots.” 

“I want to give a big thank you to all those who have been a part of this effort,” House said.  

Senate Bill SB21-209 acknowledges that American Indian tribes were forced out of Colorado and requires higher education institutions to give in-state tuition rates to students who are members of the 48 known Indigenous tribes that were in Colorado. 

Not only will this bill create space for Native American students in public colleges and universities, it also helps them gain affordable access to higher education. The bill is just one of many rights being upheld from the signed treaties and documents between local and federal governments in exchange for tribal lands.  

This bill will help indigenous youth from 46 known tribes who have ties to the area. Two of these tribes are the only ones left in Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Ignacio, Colo. and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colo. Colorado will now join the other 12 states that offer tuition waivers or in-state tuition to their respective Native American residents.  

“I have the distinct privilege of serving as the Chair of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs which serves as the liaison between the State of Colorado and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, as well as serving the American Indian/Alaska Native community across the state.” Lt. Governor Primavera stated. “I am committed to ensuring that Colorado is a national leader in deeply valuing and respecting the American Indian communities in all manners, and continuing to support the needs of our school.” 

By changing the narrative in Colorado, Indigenous people are paving the way for more states, schools and institutions to abolish the presence and use of derogatory mascots. As well as increasing historically low college attendance rates for Native American and Alaska Natives.  


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