Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

University of Denver looking for a new mascot that isn't Denver Boone

The University of Denver Pioneers have always had that fighting spirit -- but lately, much of the fight has focused on the school's long-defunct mascot, a bearded, coonskin-cap-wearing cartoon character named Denver Boone, which was designed by a Walt Disney artist and served as the school's official mascot for thirty years. In 1998, DU administrators decided to do away with Boone after some students pointed out that Denver Boone was modeled on Daniel Boone, and represented a way of life that resulted in the destruction of many Native American tribes and the deaths of thousands.

A decade later, other students and some alumni petitioned to bring Boone back. Chancellor Robert Coombe created a committee to examine the idea -- and ultimately rejected it. But DU did say that groups could continue to use the character's likeness, and Boone came back on an unofficial basis a few years ago.

But the hard feelings haven't gone away, either. And at a filming of a DU "Harlem Shake" video for YouTube (above) at the end of February that featured Boone, those feelings resurfaced -- and three students "became pretty confrontational" in their protests of the not-mascot, the school said.

Yesterday the Chancellor's Office sent out a message clarifying the non-official status of Boone -- and supporting student efforts to adopt a new mascot:

Dear Members of the DU Community:

All of us at DU are committed to inclusive excellence in everything that we do, as it is a major goal for the University as a whole. It's important that we all support that goal in our actions, in our words, and in the images we associate with our community. Over the last few weeks there has been considerable controversy surrounding the "Denver Boone" figure that was our mascot some years ago. I am writing to you today in the hope of adding some clarity to this discussion, in particular regarding the University's position on the matter.

As you may know, "Boone" has not been the mascot of the University since 1998, and we currently do not have an official mascot. An effort to resurrect Boone was mounted by student and alumni groups in 2008, and this led to the assembly of a University committee to gather opinion from different sectors and consider the matter at length. It quickly became clear that Boone was a polarizing figure that did not reflect the growing diversity of the DU community, but rather was an image that many women, persons of color, international students and faculty members found difficult to relate to as defining the pioneering spirit. Consequently I decided at that time that Boone would not be our official mascot. The current Boone figure that is seen at athletic events is in keeping with language in a letter that I sent to the community in 2008 that allows students and alumni groups to use the image as a celebration of the past, to the extent they may choose. The figure is not used in any official manner by the University, nor do we provide any financial support for its use by others. The person in the Boone costume at athletic events is a ticket holder, and nothing more.

The Undergraduate Student Government has taken up this matter and formed a task force that will move forward with research into the possibilities for a new mascot, specifically one that reflects our identity as the Pioneers but also the growing diversity of our community and its inclusive and welcoming nature. The task force will not be evaluating support for Boone, as that matter is closed; rather, it will be looking toward a new mascot that everyone can get behind and embrace. The University has offered its support to the task force through its office of Marketing and Communications. USG plans to engage in this effort through spring quarter, with a recommendation to be forwarded to my office and the Board of Trustees. At its meeting in late February, USG voted to phase out funding from student activities fees used by clubs or student groups for materials bearing the Boone image, effective 30 days after the adoption of a new official mascot. This is a great move forward.

I believe that the action by USG provides a tremendous opportunity to accelerate our progress toward inclusive excellence. As we mount a productive conversation about a new mascot, I hope our thoughts will be forward-looking and reflective of the University that we are to become, rather than the University that we were decades ago. Ten years from now, our student population will be vastly more diverse than it is now, in a way that represents tremendous intellectual potential for the institution as a whole. The real question is whether as a community we will be vastly more inclusive than we are now, with our images and icons, and our mascot, reflective of that rich diversity and inclusiveness. We should challenge ourselves to look to that future.

Robert Coombe

The Chancellor "is supporting the efforts of students who came to him and asked to study having a mascot," reports spokeswoman Kim DeVigil. "I applaud the students for their initiative and desire to truly show their commitment to build on inclusive excellence-- even in the way they celebrate their school spirit."

This isn't DU's only study of past conflicts. DeVigil reports that the university has begun to meet with leaders to discuss founder John Evans's role in the Sand Creek Massacre, "to do something together that would be significant, positive and healing for everyone." The school was founded in 1864, the same year that Colonel John Chivington, a colleague of then-Territorial Governor Evans, killed at least 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho camped at Sand Creek. Northwestern University, which was co-founded by Evans before he moved West, has already undertaken a similar study.

From the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun