Schools are running out of time to comply with Colorado’s Senate Bill 21-116, commonly known as Colorado’s mascot law, which generally prohibits schools from having Native American mascots. The Kiowa school district — with its Indian mascot — is one of six districts in the state that have not yet complied with the new law.
Schools may be exempt from the Native American mascot prohibition if they present a formal agreement with the relevant tribe to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.
Since the bill signing in June 2021, the board of Elbert County School District C-2 — the Kiowa district — has been working with the Oklahoma-based Kiowa Tribe in hopes of receiving a letter of approval to keep the current Indian mascot and associated imagery.
Many residents around Kiowa have discussed the possible existence of a previous letter from the Kiowa Tribe giving permission for the school to use the mascot and imagery. According to School Board Treasurer Danielle Ullom, the letter dated to 2005 but was subsequently lost in a flood. She said the 2005 letter gives the district credibility in its argument to maintain the Indian mascot and its related imagery.
In the board’s recent dealings with the Kiowa Tribe, the district received a formal letter of approval on Feb. 16 from tribal Chairman Matthew Komalty.
The text of the letter is:
Dear Ms. Ullom,
The Kiowa Tribe has received a request from you regarding allowing your school to continue using the name Kiowa Indians. It is our understanding the school name and mascot is Kiowa Indians. Your school board received a letter approving the use of the name in 2005 but the new state law requires a new letter approving the continued use of the name so the school can continue to honor the Kiowa Tribe and continue to be called the Kiowa Indians. We have also discussed sending a delegation of tribal elders to your school to meet with students and present a history of the Kiowa Tribe to give the students a better understanding of who we are as a people.
This letter shall serve as our approval of the School Board’s request. We appreciate the Colorado Governor and the Colorado Legislature making the requirement for the tribe’s approval. 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. We look forward to having our delegation meeting with the Board and students.
Chairman, Kiowa Tribe
The above letter was submitted to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs for exemption at its third quarterly meeting on March 10. The letter was sent by Kiowa Schools Superintendent Dr. Silvia McNeely, though she was not present at the meeting.
The letter, as it stands, does not comply with the law. Ullom, the school board treasurer, reached out to Kathryn Redhorse, executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. Redhorse advised that the Kiowa school board submit a formal mutually-signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Kiowa Tribe.
The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs will be holding a working meeting for districts remaining on the non-compliance list on April 15. At this meeting, Ullom will present the MOU agreement to the commission, after which the commission will provide feedback. If necessary, the school board will make changes and must submit documentation by April 29. The commission will vote on May 19 to decide if the Kiowa school district will be exempt from the mascot law.
If the request for exemption fails, the Kiowa school district must comply with the requirements to remove all imagery by June 1. Schools that do not comply by the deadline will incur a $25,000-per-month penalty that will go toward the State Education Fund.
Ullom indicated that if the request for exemption from the mascot law fails, the Kiowa school district would remove the Indian images — with no immediate replacement or other plan — in order to avoid the financial penalty. A decision on a future mascot would have to go before the school board, she said: “Any replacement images would then be a board decision to be made in the future.”
Ullom said in a phone interview on March 22 that the mascot and associated imagery make up an important, deeply rooted part of the Kiowa community. “The community is pretty proud of our mascot. The town is centered around it and we don’t want it to change,” said Ullom. “It wouldn’t feel right to be the Kiowa Mustangs or something.”
The Elbert County News reached out to Superintendent McNeely for comment but received no response.