Keeping Indians mascot was struggle for Kiowa Schools

District now puts priority on curriculum, Native programs

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Only two other schools in Colorado — Arapahoe High School with its Warriors mascot and Strasburg High School with its Indians mascot — are approved to retain Native American mascots, and both Arapahoe and Strasburg were never included in the mascot-ban law and were never on the non-compliance list.
 
People involved in the ultimately successful effort to keep the Kiowa Indians mascot shared their accounts of the process with the Elbert County News.
 

Initial plans to comply

Like some other locations around Colorado that had Native mascots, the Kiowa School District and residents of the town of Kiowa had reactions including disappointment, anger and fear when Colorado Senate Bill 21-116 was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in June 2021.
 
The law imposed a broad ban on Native mascots, with the prospect of $25,000 monthly fines for schools that did not comply by June 1 of this year.
 
In the first few months after Polis signed SB21-116, the then-superintendent of Elbert County School District C-2 (Kiowa Schools), Silvia McNeely, released several statements indicating that Kiowa Schools would work to comply with the new bill.
 
“The District Leadership Team will be working with Accountability Committee in developing a plan of action over the possible changes. We will be reaching out to all stakeholders (students, parents, community members, and staff) for possible ideas for a new mascot and motto,” said McNeely in a July 21, 2021 news release. “With that being said we are asking everyone to participate and become a positive contributor to this new transition.”
 
In early December, Kiowa Schools began to raise money for a new district sign along Highway 86. Though the old sign was due for replacement due to significant wear, plans called for the new sign to be free of any Native American imagery, in compliance with SB21-116.
 
In an email to the Elbert County News from McNeely on Dec. 16, she indicated that there was a plan in place to cosmetically cover up Native American images and wording until it was determined which mascot best expressed the traditions and culture of the Kiowa community. She also mentioned that the Elbert County School District C-2 Board would begin to discuss how to proceed with the transition on Jan. 10, 2022.
 

Change in tone

Later in December, however, there was a drastic shift from a mentality of compliance to a mentality of battling to the bitter end to keep the Indians as the Kiowa Schools mascot.
 
The Kiowa School Board saw three new members take office — Beverly Durant, Donnie Gabehart and Danielle Ullom — all of whom were passionate about keeping the Kiowa Indians mascot.
 
Ullom, a longtime resident of Kiowa, made it her mission to work with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma in hopes of obtaining their approval to keep the mascot, which was key to gaining an exemption from the mascot-ban law. Two hours prior to the Jan. 25 school board meeting where a vote on starting the removal of Indians imagery was to take place, Ullom received word from the Kiowa Tribe stating that the district’s imagery did not depict Native Americans in a negative manner and that the Kiowa Tribe would support the district in the battle to keep the Indians mascot.
 
Following this news, the school board looked into the SB21-116 in depth, determining what information they needed to obtain from the Kiowa Tribe. The board worked with the Kiowa Tribe’s attorney and its elders to meet the law’s requirements.
 
In 2005, the Kiowa Tribe had issued a letter granting Kiowa Schools permission to use the Indians name and imagery, but the letter was no longer available. The Kiowa Tribe sent a new letter approving the mascot on Feb. 16, which was considered at the March 10 meeting of the agency Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the entity empowered to approve or deny any request to keep a Native mascot.
 
After the March 10 meeting, with Kiowa Schools remaining on the non-compliance list, CCIA Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse said the school district needed a more formal agreement with Kiowa Tribe. A March 27 memorandum of understanding was signed by both the Kiowa Tribe and the Kiowa School Board, and after presenting plans for curriculum changes to include Native American history, Kiowa Schools succeeded in its request to keep its Indians mascot at a May 19 CCIA meeting.
 
Colorado Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera and all but one of the CCIA commissioners voted in favor of Kiowa’s request. Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart abstained.
 

Challenges along route

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs has faced criticism for its perceived lack of organization regarding SB21-116. 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 the $25,000 monthly 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.”
 
Ullom, the Kiowa School Board member at the forefront of the mascot battle, said in a May 31 email with the Elbert County News that the school board had several challenges when working with the CCIA.
 
“There was really no guidance or feedback,” Ullom wrote. “They would hold special meetings where you could ask questions, but they wouldn’t give you an answer. “We had no idea on their fourth quarter meeting if they were going to take us off the non-compliance list or not, we had no indication either way. I submitted documents multiple times to make sure the commission received them. Requirements should have been clear at the very beginning. They must also stay within the law and not overreach.”
 

New curriculum

As part of their now-successful effort, Kiowa Schools and the school board are committed to creating stronger connections with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and integrating Native American history as required curriculum for elementary and high school students.
 
Third-grade teacher Karen Carnahan developed the curriculum that will be implemented in the elementary school. Sarah Malerich, the high school social studies teacher, created a new curriculum for Native American history that will begin this fall as a required course for graduation.
 
“Both Sarah and Karen are Kiowa alumni who are passionate about remaining the Indians,” said Danielle Ullom in a May 31 email. “Karen also attended the meetings with me via Zoom at the school. Had I not had her to count on and bounce ideas off, I don’t think we would’ve been successful in keeping the mascot.”
 
Carnahan elaborated on her vision for the elementary curriculum. “I have the opportunity to lay a surface foundation that can then be built upon at the middle and high school level,” she wrote. “For many of my students, this is their first exposure to the true story of Native Americans, beyond what they may have seen on TV or in a movie. As a third generation graduate of Kiowa Schools and fifth generation of a local ranching family, the history of our country is so important to me and the Kiowa Indians are an integral part of that history.”
 
For the advanced curriculum, Kiowa High School will require a Native American history course in its curriculum. Students can take the course in either fall or spring. It will consist of a survey of Native American history from pre-European contact to the present, highlighting the processes by which Europeans and Euro-Americans dispossessed the various Native American nations and tribes of their land and identities.
 
According to the course syllabus, “The dynamics of contact, conquest, interrelationship, accommodation, assimilation, and resistance will be examined from Native and non-Native perspectives (though far greater weight is given to the former). How Indians have preserved their identities and cultures is also central to the course, as well as major contributions of Native Americans in American history; Native American history is American history. A particular focus will be given to the study of the Native American Tribes of Colorado.”
 
In addition to new curriculum, the Kiowa School District plans to implement cultural programs and hold regular events with visiting members of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma to further students’ Native American education.
 
According to Ullom, after the May 19 CCIA meeting, the school board reached out to CCIA board member Lucille Echohawk, who is part of the Pawnee Nation, another Central Plains Tribe. “We have invited them to our district,” said Ullom. “We hope to have a lasting relationship with them as well.”
 

Growing sense of pride

After prevailing in the struggle to keep the Indians mascot, many in the Kiowa community have felt a renewed sense of school and community pride. Kiowa is a small town with a close-knit group of people, most of whom went to Kiowa Schools for the entirety of their education.
 
Kiowa Schools have had the Indians mascot for 101 years and its imagery appears throughout the town. At businesses, the local library and outside of people’s homes, depictions of the Kiowa Indians mascot are on display.
 
“I think Kiowa Schools and the community have an abundance of Indian pride,” said Ullom. “We have been the Indians for 101 years and are still Indian Strong!”
 
Kiowa native and Town of Kiowa Board of Trustees Member Trevor Smith offered his thoughts on the mascot outcome in a phone interview from May 31.
 
“We were always Kiowa Indians. That’s a part of our identity,” said Smith. “For those of us who are alumni, who have children in the school, it’s a renewed spark of pride. It made us take notice of things and learn not to take them for granted.”
 
Smith also shared that his 6-year-old son Hilton had been upset about the possibility of losing the mascot. “My son came home to me one day and said, `I learned today that I might not be an Indian anymore,’” said Smith. “He was really upset. Going through that year was tough because of all the uncertainty. It was a relief when we got to keep the mascot.”
 
The Elbert County News attempted to reach Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Chairman Matthew Komalty for comment, but due to a recent spike in COVID-19 among the tribe, administrators are out of the office.

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