Inside A Movement To Retire Racially Insensitive Lamar High School Mascot
On Wednesday, Joe Biden set the tone for his presidency with an inaugural speech acknowledging the “cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making.” It remains to be seen what President Biden will to do address racial inequities on a national level. But the call for racial justice often originates local communities.
For more than a century Lamar High School, in eastern Colorado, has had a mascot that depicts a stereotypical Native American chief, wearing a headdress, and athletic teams are known as the Savages.
Today, some former and current Lamar High School students are openly critiquing the racially insensitive school culture and are calling for the school board to make a change. They’ve organized under the name “Lamar Proud,” and their work lends community support to longstanding efforts by Native American groups to rethink offensive mascots.
Stephanie Davis graduated from Lamar High School in 2006 and today she is a lead organizer with Lamar Proud. She spoke with Colorado Edition about the calls to retire the old mascot.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Henry Zimmerman: You graduated from Lamar High School about 15 years ago. Give us a sense of what you and other students thought of the mascot at the time and how changed over the years.
Stephanie Davis: I was actually one of those people who was really, really proud of the mascot. And whenever the topic would come up at a high level, I would try to defend our Savages mascot. I was really involved in school activities. I was in the pep band. I was on the field most games, greeting players with the powwow drumbeat and playing the Savages song from Pocahontas and dressing up for homecoming. I was very invested in school spirit and really proud to be a Lamar Savage.
I wasn't really exposed to a lot of other thoughts and groups outside of the Lamar community when I was in school there. It was only once I graduated and became part of a larger community with different voices, different ideas, that I personally was able to shift what I was thinking and started to learn that cultural appropriation and turning other cultures into costumes was entirely inappropriate and really demeaning toward those cultures.
Take me up to when you started your work with Lamar Proud and really started to put your foot on the gas pedal trying to get this changed.
This summer, after all of the George Floyd protests and Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain protests, I realized that I hadn't really been doing much personally to work toward racial equality and started thinking about ways I could contribute to that conversation. I realized that my own high school mascot was one of the bigger problems out there that I felt like I could have a direct impact on in a small way.
I emailed the school board and the superintendent in July, and we were invited to talk during a school board working session to address the issue and ask them what steps they'd taken to put the 2016 commission into play. From there, it just really kicked off. We have an active group of about 200 alumni who are part of the conversation, with a smaller group spearheading the effort to get this mascot changed.
You mentioned the commission there. I think what you might be referring to is former Gov. John Hickenlooper commissioned a study: American Indian Representation in Public Schools, and they released that report in 2016. They basically concluded that all schools should eliminate use of Native American mascots. Lamar High clearly did not take that recommendation. What have you heard from the school about why they still have it?
A lot oft the push back is that they think that the pressure is coming from outside of Lamar and that it's a community decision rather than something that should be made outside of the community. We heard they actually wanted to try to get the mascot on to the local ballot in 2021 and make it a community decision.
You once were a community member who embraced the mascot. And I think it stands to reason that a lot of people probably still look at that mascot and really embrace it. What sort of insight do you have into why people in Lamar are sort of hesitant to change this?
It doesn't help that it's a very, very deeply ingrained part of the community. In a small town like Lamar, it's not just about people who are going to the school. Everybody in the community is involved. You have business owners who are sponsoring school sports. You have parents. You have people who whose families have gone to that school for generations.
The mascot has actually been used since at least 1910 and probably even earlier than that. So, it's been used for a very, very long time. People take a lot of pride in it. The community claims to be honoring the Native American community with the mascot. I think they're just really hesitant to make that change.
From certain perspectives, they feel that they're honoring Native American heritage. Who decides whether something is honorable or shameful when it comes to something like representation?
I think it should be the community that is being represented. There have been activists in the American Indian community trying to get these mascots changed nationwide since at least the 1960’s. The National Congress of American Indians has actually emailed the school board asking them to change the mascot. We're definitely not alone in this fight.
What does the campaign look like now going into 2021? What sort of steps are you looking to take and what sort of things are already in motion?
We have a pretty robust digital presence. We have emailed every single business in Lamar, asking them to support changing the mascot. That came out to be about two hundred businesses. We didn't get much of a response with that.
But we are in constant communication with the school board. We've also talked to other schools that have a similar issue. So, we're trying to reach out beyond just our own community.
What we're working on has been done off of legwork and research and messaging from the American Indian community. What we're trying to do is amplify those voices because it’s the American Indian community that keeps saying that these mascots need to change. They’re the voices that we're trying to make heard the loudest.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Jan. 21. You can find the full episode here.