Communication, Partnership Are Key To Strasburg's Decision To Keep 'Indians' Mascot
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 at the state Legislature to try and ban the use or restrict the mascots at schools have failed. That hasn't stopped some schools from working with tribes to find the middle ground.
Strasburg, Colorado, is where the last spike was hammered in the nation's coast-to-coast railroad in 1870. This tiny town about an hour east of Denver is also home to the Indians, Strasburg High School's sports teams.
Several hundred students from elementary to high school enter the gym to the beat of drums. Members of the Northern Arapaho Indian are here too. Children, women and men are adorned in feathers, headdresses, bells and moccasins. They tap lightly, circling on the floor.
This pow-wow will span three hours, and will include dances with hoops, dances for prairie chickens, and 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," she said. "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 High School is not dropping the name Indians. That is not what the dialogue is about. It is about how the school can keep the name, 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.
In 2015, Rasp testified against a bill at the statehouse. The bill, which ultimately failed, 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," he said. "I think if it evolved from the community that's going to effect the most long lasting and genuine change."
Gov. John Hickenlooper's office and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs are 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 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," Tecklenberg said. "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," he said.
Ridgley 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 its 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," Willow said.
About 30 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.
"We've been through a lot and we're still here," he told the assembled at the Strasburg pow-wow.
Copyright 2016 KUNC