Chancy J. Gatlin-Anderson
Special to Colorado Community Media
Editor's note: This story was updated on May 26 following confirmation by Gov. Jared Polis' office that the Kiowa School District is unique in receiving Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs approval to keep the district's Native American mascot.
More information and links have been added throughout.
The Kiowa School District in Elbert County won its year-long battle to keep its Indians mascot on May 19, when the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs voted to allow the district to keep the Indians name and imagery.
Among dozens of schools placed on a list last year for being out of compliance with the state's general ban on Native American mascots, the sparsely populated Kiowa School District is the only one that has succeeded in keeping its original mascot.
Two other schools that have kept Native mascots, Arapahoe and Strasburg high schools, were never included in the 2021 mascot-ban law.
The Kiowa School District had gone through multiple procedures to meet the standards outlined in Colorado Senate Bill 21-116, the 2021 law generally banning Native American mascots. The school district reached a formal memorandum of understanding in March with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, which approved the mascot, and implemented Native American history courses both for elementary students and as a graduation requirement in high school.
The vote on the Kiowa Schools request was held at the May 19 meeting of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, where Colorado Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera and CCIA commissioners voted in favor of Kiowa's request to keep its Indians mascot and be removed from the list of non-compliant schools
All voted to approve Kiowa’s request except Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart, who abstained.
Work began in 2021
Following the signing of the mascot-ban law in June 2021, at a time when dozens of schools were on the non-compliance list, the board of Elbert County School District C-2 (Kiowa Schools) had been working on meeting the law's standards to keep its Indians mascot. The district, located east of Elizabeth where the landscape opens eastward to the Colorado high plains, enrolls fewer than 300 students in grades pre-K through 12.
All other districts that were removed from the non-compliance list over the past year have agreed to change their mascots rather than face looming $25,000 monthly fines.
Kiowa School Board Treasurer Danielle Ullom, who had been instrumental in the district’s efforts to keep its mascot, released a statement after prevailing in the CCIA vote.
“We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to comply with SB 21-116 by the CCIA," she wrote. "The district is excited that as a school we have the honor of helping to preserve the history of the Kiowa Indians."
Ullom added: “Our town and district are dedicated to working with the Kiowa Tribe in the education of our students and community. We look forward to maintaining this relationship and proudly representing the Kiowa Indians.”
Kiowa Elementary and Kiowa High School plan to integrate Native American education into their curriculum. At the May 19 CCIA meeting, one board member questioned why the middle school did not have a Native American curriculum plan in place, and a Kiowa Schools representative said it does not fit the middle school curriculum set by the state.
“I’d like to thank the Kiowa Schools for contacting and working with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma,” CCIA board member Marge Barry of the Southern Ute Tribe said. “I’m happy they’ve established a relationship and I hope it continues.”
Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Chairman Matthew Komalty, in a February letter to Kiowa Schools endorsing the use of the Indians mascot, wrote: "In many instances Native Americans have been presented in a poor light and mascots have been presented as caricatures or frankly just in a racist manner. We appreciate the city of Kiowa and the School Board presenting our people in a positive way."
No enforcement agency
The May 19 CCIA meeting was the last session before the mascot ban goes into effect June 1, at which time the law calls for districts remaining in violation to be fined $25,000 per month.
At the end of the May 19 meeting, only Lamar with its Savages mascot remained on the non-compliance list for the June 1 deadline, and the Lamar School District quickly announced a name change to Lamar Thunder. The CCIA board will convene May 31 and decide whether to remove Lamar from the non-compliance list.
Ten Colorado schools using Thunderbird iconography, which were only recently notified that they were considered out of compliance with the state law, have a year to come into compliance with the mascot ban. The schools face expenses to remove all Thunderbird references, and the list includes elementaries with high poverty rates in Greeley and the rural San Luis Valley.
A day before the May 19 meeting where Kiowa's mascot request was approved, The Colorado Sun reported that there is currently no agency empowered to collect fines from non-compliant school districts.
Democratic state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango, one of the bill's sponsors, told The Colorado Sun, “I think we were kind of hoping we wouldn’t collect any money — that it would be a big enough threat to just change the mascot or cover it up.”
Following the May 19 CCIA meeting where Kiowa's mascot request was approved, leaving only Lamar's request unresolved, the Elbert County News asked Gov. Jared Polis' office — which handles media inquiries for the CCIA — whether any other schools that were ever on the non-compliance list had been allowed to keep their Native American mascots.
The governor's office confirmed late on the night of May 25 that Kiowa is the only school district from the original non-compliance list that has kept its Native American mascot.