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Carpinteria board votes to retain Native American images as part of school regalia

March 17, 2009 | 11:31 pm


After a year of bitter conflict, Carpinteria’s school board voted Tuesday night to retain almost all the Native American imagery that dots the high school campus where residents have cheered on the Warriors since 1928.

The board’s special meeting drew hundreds of residents to the school gym, whose outer wall is decorated with a mural of a headress-clad chief surrounded by student athletes. Board members, one of whom survived a recall attempt over the issue, decided in a 3-2 vote to keep the mural and most other Native American likenesses and symbols.

Soon to be gone are the glowering red caricatures on athletic patches and a cartoon-like Indian head profile on floor mats. But the board rejected recommendations by an advisory committee to remove the sculpture of a Plains Indian chief in the parking lot, or to purge the district’s logo of a canoe and arrowheads, or to change or eliminate other symbols.

Echoing controversies that have rocked schools across the U.S. for decades, the debate in Carpinteria has been heated, with accusations of racism, on the one hand, and political correctness run amok on the other.

One after another, residents trooped to the microphone Tuesday night to say that the array of images were meant to honor native Americans, not demean them. While other embattled schools have mascots clad in Indian regalia, it has been many years since a similar figure made an appearance at a Carpinteria High game or other event.

A 15-member advisory committee appointed by the board last year was stacked with anti-imagery activists, some speakers complained.

“Outside agitators have tried to turn it into a major spectacle,” said Langdon Nevins, a retired Carpinteria teacher.

Many spectators waved signs that read, “Warrior Spirit Never Dies!” The crowd cheered 76-year-old Evangelina Diaz, a Carpinteria resident of Yaqui descent, who proclaimed she was “a warrior — not a victim!”

On the other side were people supporting Eli Cordero, a student who triggered the controversy with a complaint to the board last year. Cordero, a 16-year-old junior who is active in Chumash groups, told the board that the images were offensive because they made inappropriate use of native American likenesses and ceremonial items.

“I’ve looked into the eyes of the stone Indian and seen the degradation of my ancestors,” he said. “I’m not here to ask you to remove the images; I’m here to tell you to do the right thing.”

Faviana Hirsch, a member of the board’s Native American Imagery Committee, suggested the cause may go to “the newly invigorated U.S. Department of Justice under Barack Obama, who has called for change in this country — if some of you people in Carpinteria haven’t noticed.”

As part of security preparations for the meeting, the board had conferred with Justice Department officials. Department personnel were patrolling the perimeter of the crowded gym and Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies also kept watch.

Also on the sidelines, a man displayed a poster with pennants of fabricated teams like “the Fighting Jews” and “the San Francisco Orientals.”

“What’s your team?” he asked people in the crowd.

At issue were 13 separate images that appear on stickers, patches, T-shirts, and elsewhere on campus. The Warriors’ name was not in dispute because it appeared ethnically neutral to people who were upset by the images, including Eli Cordero, representatives of the American Indian Movement and other groups.

California legislators have passed measures banning native American mascots at schools, but the bills have twice been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said such questions should be decided locally.

In Carpinteria, the school board last spring voted 3-2 to remove the images but backed down after a community outcry. Opponents contended that board members had made the decision too quickly, denying the public more notice and fuller discussion. On Tuesday, board chair Terry Hickey Banks agreed with them, saying she accepted “full responsibility” for a process that was not as deliberative as it should have been.

“A slower, more educational process would have resulted in less anger,” she said.
The issue shook up the board in last fall’s election. One anti-imagery member opted not to run and was replaced by Lou Panizzon, a popular, retired coach and principal at the school who had criticized the board for rushing its initial decision.

After two hours of public comment, board member Alex Pulido moved to eliminate only the scowling Indian of the patches and the floor mat caricature. He noted that the committee was more seriously split on its other recommendations. A motion to paint over the Indian head on the gym’s mural, replacing it with likenesses of more student athletes, was rejected.

-- Steve Chawkins

Photo: A person against the changing the Native American symbols at Carpinteria High School  holds a sign during a special school board meeting  held on campus. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times