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GUEST COLUMN: Cancel Culture Canceled American Indian Culture | Opinion

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In 2021, the Colorado Legislature enacted SB 21-116. This is a law that generally prohibits public schools in Colorado from having Native American “mascots.” To shame schools by naming them with the names of sports teams such as “Indians” and “Warriors,” the law delegated the power to enforce these schools to comply with the Colorado Indian Affairs Commission.

We represented Native Americans who tried to block the enforcement of the law. Unfortunately, however, the court ruled that the law did not directly harm the client, despite the intent to remove Native American names and images in schools across Colorado. We have dismissed the client’s lawsuit. Now, in the absence of legal recourse, it is up to Colorado citizens to demand change from the Colorado Legislature.

Originally, the law may have seemed simple. But it wasn’t. Most notably, Congress’ definition of “mascot” is so broad that it includes not only sports team monikers, but also logo names and school letterhead images. This meant schools had to hide or destroy old yearbooks, sports team jerseys and trophies. Some schools, such as the Campo School District, have even destroyed historic school murals of American Indian warriors.

The law cannot be read literally. Ostensibly, it is intended for schools named after American Indian tribes, traditions, or individuals. For example, Ouray High School, whose sports team is named Trojan, is technically non-legal because it is named after the Ute Chief Ouray.

But Colorado knows it can’t force schools like Ouray, Cheyenne Mountain, Cherokee Trail, Pagosa Springs, Pawnee, and Alicary to change their school names. So what did they do? They invented a geographic exception and inserted it into law enforcement to save the Colorado legislature from its mistakes.

The law also has the strange effect of penalizing schools that want to respect Native Americans. For example, during the lawsuit, we took the deposition of Kathryn Redhorse, director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs. Ms Redhorse acknowledged that a school named after Chief Sitting Bull could not use a historically accurate and respectful image of the same name on its letterhead. And shockingly, even the name “Sitting Bull” never appeared on such a school’s logo. It’s ironic that no such limit exists.

Apart from this, Colorado has also expanded the scope of its laws elsewhere. For example, it issued guidance prohibiting schools from using words “associated with” Native Americans. For example, the Yuma school district wanted to stop being an “Indian” mascot and become a Yuma “tribe.”

However, despite the use of the word “tribe” in unrelated contexts (such as the 12 Tribes of Israel), it was closely associated with the American Indians. As such, in the face of rejection, Yuma has decided to refrain from using the mascot for now.

Similarly, Lamar High School wanted to remain Lamar Savages (or, alternatively, Lamar Savage Thunders), but removed all references and images of American Indians. But no chance. The CCIA said the word “barbarian” was deemed too offensive regardless of context, and Lamar narrowly avoided a large last-minute fine. By law, it would have been $25,000 a month.

Recently, the commission decided to add 10 more schools to the list. All of which have a “Thunderbird” mascot. Thunderbirds are mythical creatures historically associated with, but not limited to, American Indians.

One of the CCIA commissioners expressed disgust at the use of feathers in the school’s logo. Of course, feathers are also associated with… birds. But sadly, schools can be sure that the enforcement of the mascot ban will continue indefinitely, and that there will be surprises along the way.

School, on their part, is on track to get along. After all, they’re getting money from Colorado and generally want to avoid biting the hand that feeds them. I pointed out that the damage was the school, not our client.

But it is not correct.

The next time a school considers naming after a Native American individual, tradition, or tribe, avoid legal headaches and just name it after something that might not cause you any trouble. On the one hand, if a school is named after a white man, it’s obvious. is what I was worried about.

“Cancel culture” is a hot topic these days. Culture was literally canceled here. And our Native American clients have been told that representations of their heritage are now illegal. The only solution now lies with the citizens of Colorado and their legislatures.

William Trachman is General Counsel for the Mountain States Legal Foundation and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Erin Erhardt is an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

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