For the Left Hand Bulls it was a family affair to advocate for a bill that would put American Indian school mascots up for approval by a board of tribal members. They came to the House hearing as a family, their two young daughters dressed in regalia, where the bill passed. The girls testified again in the Senate, where the bill failed on a party-line vote.
“My friends keep calling me pretend Indian and making fun of me, my culture,” said seven-year old LacyJay Left Hand Bull. “This bill should be passed because I am not your mascot.”
Their mother, Monique Left Hand Bull, also testified, saying she was there not just for her own daughters but all native youth.
“These mascots leave it open for them to be bullied… if not from their own school, from the opposing team,” she said. “There is a direct connection between these mascots and the suicide rate among native youth. Research shows it causes depression and a poor self-identity. Native youth suicide rate is three times the national average.”
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But representatives of schools with American Indian mascots said their mascots are intended to honor native culture and that replacing symbols should not be a fiscal priority for the state’s radically underfunded public schools.
“Due to this bill’s possible passage we had to hold off on buying a desperately needed school bus and hiring a driver,” said John Sampson of the Strasburg School Board, where the mascot is the Indians.
Sampson said their rural district’s Chief Financial Officer estimated that replacing the mascot would cost $120,000.
“We’re debating a bill that is steeped in political correctness and has virtually no educational value,” he said.
Yet much of the hearing was about education. One after another witness came forward to share the history of the more than 50 tribes that once thrived in Colorado before being deported to reservations. They described how native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where the educational goal was to, “Kill the indian to save the man.”
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, asked how mascots like the Savages or Redskins differ from other humanoid sports imagery, such as Pirates.
“The difference here, and the one we’re trying to point out, is that mascots based on ethnic identity are different and separate from those based on a profession,” explained sponsor Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster.
Somber and occasionally confrontational during the course of the hearing, Ulibarri unexpectedly broke for a joke.
“For example, I was a Cougar at my middle school … in the animal sense,” he said to a round of laughter that slowly subsided.
“A profession is a thing. A cougar is a thing,” Ulibarri continued. “But Native people are people, and that’s the difference. When we talk about people we should treat them with respect, and they should have subjectivity, not be treated as objects.”
The bill failed on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting against it.
“I feel sad because we lost, and my sister is sad too,” said LacyJay. “But we’re not giving up. So the next bill we’ll try again. Because last time we won, so we could win again.”
Jason Left Hand Bull looked on as his daughters slowly began to smile again and shortly thereafter to gamble across the Capitol’s squeaky marble floors.
“I think if we hadn’t done this they wouldn’t know they have rights, they have a voice. They wouldn’t know the value of communication and of being able to speak their feelings,” he reflected. “I do think, ‘What if this did pass? What effect would it have on my daughters?”
The women of the Left Hand Bull family testify in favor of the bill to allow tribal members review of American Indian mascots. Left to right — LacyJay, 7, Lucille, 8, and mother Monique. Photo by Tessa Cheek.