Native Americans Say Measure Banning American Indian Mascots Isn't Beneficial to Heritage

A lawsuit filed in Colorado this week by a North Dakota-based group representing Native Americans argued a law banning American Indian school mascots leads to the erasure of American-Indian imagery and is not beneficial.

The nonprofit Native American Guardian's Association filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court to counter a measure signed into law in June saying schools and colleges using American Indian-themed mascots would be fined $25,000 per month after June 1, 2022. Schools on tribal lands and those with existing agreements with tribes are not included.

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs identified more than 20 schools across the state for violating the law by using terms such as Savages, Indians and Warriors in their mascot's name.

The suit states that the positive use of Native American symbols is beneficial. Specifically, it helps counter stereotypes and keeps Native American history as part of the public discourse.

This conversation has long plagued major sports teams, including the Washington Football Team, which dropped its original nickname in 2020, and the Cleveland Indians, which will start the 2022 season as the Cleveland Guardians. The World Series champion Atlanta Braves were again under scrutiny for the team name and their fans performing the "tomahawk chop" during games. The NFL's Kansas City Chiefs also are a point of discussion when the usage of Native American imagery comes up in pro sports.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tomahawk chop, Mascots, Native Americans
Atlanta Braves fans do the tomahawk chop during the first inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Braves and Milwaukee Brewers in Atlanta on October 12. Native American imagery in sports has recently come under greater scrutiny. (Associated Press) Associated Press

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, naming Governor Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser and Kathryn Redhorse, the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. The firm is representing a John Doe, Jane Doe and three other Colorado residents who cite Native American heritage in the lawsuit.

The organization's lawsuit argues that the Colorado law is unconstitutional and "unlawfully enacts state-sanctioned race discrimination" against the Native American residents the association is representing.

The lawsuit also states that the use of positive Native American symbolism is a form of "reappropriation" or a way to "reclaim names and images that were once directed at them as insults in order to turn them outward as badges of pride."

According to the lawsuit, John and Jane Doe, who are of Cherokee and Chippewa descent, attend Yuma High School in northeast Colorado, which is home to the "Yuma Indians." The two want their school to continue honoring their cultures and heritage because, as the suit alleges, they "would suffer a hostile environment" if the Native mascots were banned.

Spokespeople for Polis and Weiser said they would not comment because the lawsuit is ongoing.

An email sent Thursday to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs for comment on the lawsuit was not immediately returned.