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Colorado School Districts Still Using Native American Mascots Are in Danger of $25K Monthly Fines

Colorado school districts that haven't removed Native American mascots may soon be penalized $25,000 per month, in accordance with Colorado Senate Bill 116. The bill states that the use and presence of offensive American Indian mascots across Colorado creates a risky educational environment for American Indian students with grave negative effects on the children's mental well-being and encourages the bullying of American Indian students.

The law continues by clarifying its definition of “mascot.” “American Indian mascot means the name, symbol or image that represents or is related or is a reference to the American Indian tribe, individual or custom that can be utilized as a mascot name or logo, letterhead or team name for the school.”

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, which is responsible for enforcing the law, will meet in May to determine the fate of schools on the list of those that have not yet complied. Seven schools in Colorado have mascots that bear the names “Savages,” “Indians,” and “Thunderbirds.”

The debate about these mascots has been aired for a long time. PowWows.com is an online platform “where everyone can experience and explore Native American culture” and has stated both sides of the debate.

Defenders of Native mascots usually declare they intend to respect Native Americans by referencing positive qualities, such as courage, fighting spirit, or toughness. They also refer to stoicism. Opposition groups consider these characteristics as an aspect of a reductionist mindset, which leads to “savage” stereotyping of Native Americans.

Despite efforts that go back to the 1930s, Native American team names and mascots continue to be in wide use, with Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks, and Atlanta Braves being prominent examples. Teams that recently changed names include the Washington Redskins, now the Washington Commanders, and the Cleveland Indians, now the Cleveland Guardians.

The problem might appear simple at first glance: If you are infuriated by a name or think that the mascot is racist, that name must be changed to something less offensive, such as the Naked Narwhal. People are annoyed by everything these days. However, where does one define the boundaries? A couple of years ago, an NFL team looked at getting rid of the “wasp” mascot because there was a possibility that it could be a reference to white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Seriously?

The Washington Post discovered in 2016 that this issue isn't all that simple when it conducted a survey with Native Americans regarding the moniker “Redskins”: In every group, the vast majority of Native Americans said the team's name didn't offend them. This included the 80 percent who considered themselves politically liberal, 85 percent of college students, 90 percent of tribe members, 90 percent of non-football fans, and 91 percent of those between 18 and 39. Nine out of 10 of those who had been exposed to much information about the issue declared that they were not worried about the term.

What makes these attitudes most striking is that the public at large seems to object more strongly to these terms than Indians do. During its polling, the Post conducted an interview with a Native American teacher. The results indicated that many others who were surveyed embraced indigenous imagery in sports as it gave them a sense of respect in a culture in which they were not often represented. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said that such images were a source of concern to them.

This doesn't mean that every Native American likes the mascots. In fact, there are many voices that suggest that they consider them offensive, discriminatory, and insulting. From wernative.org: “I can remember being 13 and being embarrassed when the crowd began to make war calls or cutting through the air using their hands to make ‘tomahawks.’ I wasn't aware of what it meant back then but I knew that I wanted to go within myself and shrink. I didn't wish to let it be known as being Native; however, I felt that everyone at the stadium knew who we were and that the spotlight was shining upon me and the Native teammates, watching us to see what we were doing.”

It's a complex issue, and teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves will likely come under more scrutiny in the near future. It also raises the question of whether the government should impose harsh penalties. What are constitutional rights under the First Amendment?

Congress will not pass any law that prohibits religious assembly or free practice or restricts freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of the populace to gather and ask the government to address grievances. The Washington Redskins didn't change their name due to federal law. They changed it due to the pressures from Native American organizations and many of their own sponsors.

If a team’s name upsets someone, he or she can protest–or stop purchasing tickets. If there are enough people putting pressure on the organization, it will eventually accept market pressure and please its patrons. If this involves changing its mascot, that's fine.

It's a bit overkill for a state government to fine its own institutions for not adhering to the “rules.”

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