Sangre de Cristo School can keep its Thunderbird mascot after all

MOSCA — The tiny Sangre de Cristo School District in the San Luis Valley can keep its Thunderbird mascot.

That decision Thursday by the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs capped two years of work to rid public schools in the state of derogatory Native American mascots.

Sangre de Cristo and eight other schools were notified in June 2022 that their Thunderbird mascots were inappropriate under a state law adopted in 2021. Those notices came as the CCIA wrapped up a year of work on getting mascots such as Indians, Braves and Savages changed at a dozen other schools or districts.

The choice for schools deemed noncompliant with Senate Bill 116 was to eliminate all Native American names and imagery from buildings, websites, uniforms and the like or enter into an agreement with a tribe for permission to use certain names or images.

Most chose new mascots. A few sought to forge partnerships with tribal nations, but only two were successful: the Kiowa and Sangre de Cristo districts. Strasburg schools (Indians) and Arapahoe High School (Warriors) had tribal agreements before the new law was passed and have retained their mascots. 

In March 2022, the Elbert County School District board signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma allowing it to remain as the Kiowa Indians. The district agreed to implement a new curriculum and to promote a positive cultural exchange with the tribe.

This year, Sangre de Cristo schools entered into a similar agreement with the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, Superintendent David Crews said, noting they began working with Apache tribes last fall to get permission to retain the Thunderbird mascot.

“The positive thing that’s come out of this, though, is we’ve developed a good relationship with Apache and Jicarilla Apache tribes,” he said. “It’s gotten bigger than just the mascot.”

The district has about 260 students at its one-building campus in Mosca. Its enrollment dropped below 300 pupils in the wake of the pandemic.

It has learned about the Apache’s historical presence in the San Luis Valley and is developing a curriculum that will be used in third grade and high school social studies. It is working with an Apache historian and education officials to develop the curriculum, which will be implemented in fall 2024.

The district was lauded Thursday by several CCIA commissioners for taking the time to work with the tribe.

“I’m so happy that Sangre de Cristo was willing to have an open mind and learn the Native American history,” said Alston Turtle, tribal vice chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado. “I’m very glad for this template. Good job to everyone that’s done what they’ve done.”

Shortly after Thursday’s special session of the CCIA board — called to consider Sangre de Cristo’s tribal agreement — references to Senate Bill 116 and the list of schools not in compliance with the law disappeared from the CCIA website. Thursday was the deadline for the second group of schools to comply, and no additional schools have been added.

Schools that did not comply could have been fined $25,000 a month for continuing to use a derogatory mascot, although the law did not appear to include a mechanism for collecting the fines.

Initially, the work was expected to have been completed by June 1, 2022, but the Montrose School District questioned why it was being ordered to get rid of a Thunderbird mascot at one of its elementary schools when several other schools in the state used a Thunderbird mascot. CCIA staff found nine other schools with Thunderbird mascots, and determined that the mythical bird was closely related to Native American culture and customs.

Legislators amended the 2022 school finance law to allow the CCIA to add schools to the noncompliant list after the initial deadline and to give them a year from the date of notification to make changes. The new deadline is June 16.

Although public support for the mascot changes was strong, some districts briefly fought to retain mascots they said honored Native American history and the names and images were part of their own history.

The Lamar School District floated the idea of a “Savage Thunder” nickname to preserve its Savages heritage, but the CCIA said no. Its nickname is now the Thunder, with an image of a charging buffalo.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, in conjunction with the Native American Guardian’s Association and plaintiffs from Lamar and Yuma, filed suit in 2021 against Colorado to block the law. It was tossed out by a judge last year.