It could have been worse: The University of Denver could have been stuck with the Exterminators instead of the Pioneers. "Exterminator" is the label that Major Edward Wynkoop slapped on then-territorial governor John Evans after he endorsed "the destruction and killing" of "all hostile Indians" — an endorsement acted on at Sand Creek in November 1864 by Colonel John Chivington, the man with whom Evans had co-founded what would become DU.
In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre — which coincides with the 150th anniversary of DU — the school has appointed a commission to consider Evans's role regarding Sand Creek, where 150 peace-seeking natives were slaughtered. At Northwestern University, the Illinois school Evans had founded a decade earlier, a similar group is assessing his past actions — and determining what role, if any, his name should have at Northwestern.
So compared to cleaning up after an exterminating founder whose name is on programs, buildings, streets, towns, even a mountain peak, coming up with a new mascot for DU would seem relatively easy.
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The school also has a committee to do that. This spring, the Denver Pioneer Mascot Steering Committee — a group of students, alumni, faculty and staff — set out to "create a Denver Pioneer mascot character that enables and celebrates school spirit, is representative of our Pioneer community and consistent with our values." And last week, after holding 45 focus groups and 15 open forums, and inspiring much heated debate on the web, the committee sent a survey to more than 75,000 members of the DU community, asking them to evaluate three Denver Pioneer mascot character concepts "against 20 attributes created by the community." The survey instructions included a few reminders: "1) DU will continue to be the Denver Pioneers, 2) the crimson and gold colors will not change, 3) the use of the Arch Denver and interlocking DU logos will remain as you know them today." A fourth point was not mentioned, but by now everyone at DU knows it well: The pioneer character created by Disney in 1968 and dubbed "Denver Boone" has been banished for good, after first being exiled in 1998 for being too politically incorrect, then brought back unofficially by DU supporters five years ago after Ruckus, a roadrunner replacement, went splat. But in March, DU administrators announced that Boone didn't have a prayer of being resurrected as an official mascot, and when the website backing his cause finally went dark last month, so did any last hopes that the school might bring him back. Instead, the DU community is left with these three possibilities:
1) Pio the Pioneer (Elk). "A proud and powerful Pioneer, the Rocky Mountain elk once dominated the plans. When the settlers moved in, the mighty elk pioneered its way to Colorado's High Country, thriving in record numbers. Pio is the majestic symbol for Pioneers everywhere, and the unquestioned leader and protector of the herd. Tough, intimidating and loyal, it stands its ground and will stare down the opposition from North Dakota to New England. Pio is adaptable, resourceful and here to stay, just like our Pioneer nation. You can just hear the rumble of 'the Pioneer Herd' stamping their feet in Magness Arena! Watch it take on rival mascots with its signature charge. No one wants to be in the way of this tough and tenacious Pioneer."
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2) Pio the Pioneer (Jackalope): "It's a jackrabbit, an antelope. A mainstay of Western mythology. It's a fleet-footed critter born of campfire storytelling and inspired by Pioneer resourcefulness. It'll fool our opponents once, twice, thrice and then some. Fiendishly smart and always sure of itself, Pio will be a behind-the-scenes magic maker as the Pioneer teams continue to collect championship trophies. It'll be the spring behind the jump shot, the ace serve behind the tennis team, and the wind that propels the hockey puck. In other words, it'll be part of DU magic. Watch it work some of its illusions and trick shots on the ice, on the court and on the pitch. Pio is one wily Pioneer."
3) Pio the Pioneer (Mountain Explorer): "The Pioneers have a voracious appetite for adventure, but none more so than the extreme peak-scaling, curiosity-seeking mountain explorer. Pio, and his forever canine companion "Champ," are real Coloradans, thriving in the extreme conditions of the high country. They've never met a 14er they couldn't summit, as they love the challenge that each adventure brings. They've outfoxed a few CC Tigers, outrun more than one killer avalanche, weathered frostbite and battled all the elements, sometimes all in the same day. They are gritty pioneers, just like DU students and athletes. Watch Pio rappel from the rafters of Magness Arena to the roar of the DU crowd. He's one show-stopping Pioneer." (He also looks like he just downed a few at the Stadium Inn.)
Here are the twenty attributes for which each mascot should be rated: strong, pioneering, Western, inclusive, innovative, adventurous, distinctive, recognizable, approachable, visually appealing, cool & now, athletic, fun, charismatic, fit with Pioneer spirit, fit with DU, ties to DU legacy-history, connects to Colorado & Mountains, appropriate to DU and, perhaps most important, "I'd buy a sweatshirt with that mascot."
From sweat lodge to sweatshirt in 150 years: One way or another, Colorado's natives got fleeced. Go, Pioneers. Go far away.