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In a 3-2 decision, the La Vetta school board last year voted to keep “Redskins” as the high school’s nickname. (Rachel Estabrook/Only A Game)

The NFL playoffs start this weekend. The Washington Redskins didn’t qualify, but protests about the team’s name are still in the news. In several states, lawmakers question whether local schools should keep using the Redskins nickname, as several dozen across the country currently do.

One community, in the foothills of Colorado’s Southern Rockies, recently pushed its school board to stick with the name it has used for decades. But in the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers may force a change.

A Community Divided

“Four generations have been Redskins. We were proud to be Redskins.”

– Irene Heikes, resident of La Veta, Colo.

A small crowd watched the La Veta High School boys’ basketball team as they took on La Junta’s JV squad. Little kids ran around in front of the bleachers and bumped into cheerleaders. Above the game action, it was impossible to miss a giant painting on the gym wall of a lean, muscular guy — wearing a loincloth, brown moccasins and a long, flowing headdress — about to dunk a basketball.

Sophomore guard Brayden Dobbs watched from the sideline. He’d have been playing in this game, but he was out with a concussion. When Dobbs was a freshman, his English class debated whether the school should get rid of its nickname, the Redskins.

“Most of us were towards changing it, just ‘cause, I guess, we wanted to see if we could actually pull it off ‘cause nobody thought we could,” he said.

(Rachel Estabrook/Only A Game)

La Veta’s varsity basketball team takes on the junior varsity squad from La Junta, Colo. (Rachel Estabrook/Only A Game)

That was fall 2013, and the students read a commentary sportscaster Bob Costas had recently delivered on Sunday Night Football saying the word Redskins is an insult and a slur.

“I didn’t even realize how messed up it could be if someone took it that way,” Dobbs said.

Shortly afterward, the class took the issue to the school board, which agreed to discuss it. That’s when a lot of adults in town spoke up about why they didn’t want it to change.

“Four generations have been Redskins,” said Irene Heikes as she shopped at a gift shop down the street from the school. “We were proud to be Redskins.”

Her classmate from decades ago, Mitzi Keairns, is the sales clerk. The two women won cheerleading trophies together at La Veta high.

“’We’re proud to be a Redskin and all of that stuff,” Keairns said. “We had a lot of cheers that had the ‘Redskin’ word in it, but never even crossed our minds that could be derogatory, you know.”

The women say the name still isn’t meant to be offensive. But they disagree on whether to change it. Heikes wants to stay the Redskins. Keairns doesn’t and she’s in the minority in La Veta. The school board held a packed community meeting in the gym last year. Thirty or so people stood up to speak, and only three supported making a change. Later, after months of public debate, the five-member school board voted.

Bobby Mitchell Weighs In
Bobby Mitchell, the Washington NFL franchise’s first black player, addresses the nickname controversy.
By a 3-2 count, the board stuck with the nickname.

“I voted to keep the mascot, and I felt really, really bad,” said Cindy Campbell, who was with the majority.

Campbell said her vote was influenced by “fear of personal retribution.” But she also said she wanted to represent the community’s wishes — and she wanted the issue to go away. Other board members agree: The nickname issue distracts the board from focusing on academics. And despite her regrets, Campbell stands by the board’s decision.

But it might not stick.

An Inevitable Change?

“This bill is about empowering the American Indian community and getting people to speak with them and show them the respect that they deserve,” said Democratic State Rep. Joe Salazar.

Salazar wants Colorado to set up a commission of American Indians living in the state to let them decide whether nicknames at La Veta — and 40 or so other schools — are offensive and need to go.

Shirts for sale at a La Veta, Colo., high school basketball game. (Rachel Estabrook/OAG)

Shirts for sale at a La Veta, Colo., high school basketball game. (Rachel Estabrook/OAG)

“American Indians should have the right to say how they should be honored, if they want to be honored at all,” he said.

More than 2,000 U.S. high schools, colleges, pro, and semi-pro teams have names like Indians, Chiefs, Braves, or Savages, according to the website FiveThirtyEight. And the National Conference of State Legislators says over the past decade, seven states have considered proposals similar to the one in Colorado, including Wisconsin. In 2010, lawmakers there required schools to put their team names to an offensiveness test. Then, a year ago, Gov. Scott Walker signed a new law, weakening the requirement. He later spoke publicly about his decision.

“If I could personally take care of this, I’d go and change these mascots and these nicknames because I have great empathy for the concern they have,” he said. “By the same token, I just think from a free speech standpoint that free speech shouldn’t be limited to just speech we agree with.”

But by the time Walker signed the bill, a lot of Wisconsin schools had already scrubbed old Indian logos from gym floors and removed the names from uniforms, the Associated Press reported. Because of tight school budgets, administrators had to plan ahead. That’s true in La Veta, too. Recently, the high school bought new uniforms for some sports, and they don’t say “Redskins.” Board members acknowledge change is inevitable.

Dobbs agrees.

“We weren’t trying to, you know, mess up tradition or anything,” the La Veta sophomore said as he watched from the sidelines. “We just wanted to start the conversation because soon enough everyone’s going to have to change their mascots from the Redskins to whatever else.”

Lawmakers in Colorado can decide how soon that’ll be. Salazar plans to introduce his bill in the coming weeks.

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