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Belmont City Council votes to support 'Red Raider' mascot at South Point High

Ann Doss Helms
Southpoint High School in Belmont.

The Belmont City Council has voted 4-0 in support of the controversial "Red Raider" mascot at South Point High School, which depicts a red-faced Native American with feathered hair and an earring, finding it to be a "positive reflection of the city as a whole and a welcome reminder of the contributions of American Indians to the culture and history of our community."

The resolution, introduced by Mayor Pro Tem Richard Turner, says the school has used the image with sensitivity to Native American history and culture, and that the logo represented "community pride, sportsmanship and strength."

The resolution also cites a 2020 assessment of the 'Red Raider" mascotby the Native American Guardian's Association, a group that defended the Washington Redskin's name and has taken on school mascot fights around the country.

The group said it believed the South Point mascot and logo were "respectful and historically accurate" and that it did not find the logo offensive.

Local Native Americans react with anger

The resolution was met with anger from members of the group, "Retire the Red Raider," who have been lobbying school officials to change the mascot for years.

"It's sickening," said Rebecca LaClaire, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and one of the group's founding members. "We already knew how they felt, but to put it in words, so it can go down in history is just amazing."

LaClaire said research compiled by the American Psychological Association, found Native American mascots and imagery can negatively impact the development and self-esteem of American Indian students.

She questioned why the city council elevated the opinion of the Native American Guardian's Association over opposition to Native-themed mascots from local members of the Lumbee Tribe, the Metrolina Native American Association, the North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs and the National Congress of American Indians.

LaClaire said the assertion that red body paint and feathered hair are historically accurate for indigenous people missed the point.

"You can say that's a good picture of a Native American, but that's not really the issue," LaClaire said, "It's how they use that mascot to represent us on a daily basis."

She cited images in South Point High School yearbooks from the 1970s that showed students dressed in Native American garb at football games and homecoming events, and said American Indian students currently enrolled at the school were afraid to speak out.

"Native American kids have got to feel included, and when you're out there using them as a mascot, how do they feel safe?" she said. "How can they learn, when this is what they're facing?"

LaClaire also took issue with the term "raider."

"We are not raiders. We did not raid our land," she said. "Why would you put a Native American person with the word 'raider?' That's the part that I don't get."

South Point principal remains silent

A spokesperson for the Gaston County School District said neither the school board nor the superintendent had control over school mascots, and any change would have to be made at the school level.

South Point High School's principal, Gary Ford, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over several weeks from WFAE.

The school's mascot hasn't always been the "Red Raider." Originally, the mascot was a cardinal, before it changed to the "Red Raider" in 1969 because the bird mascot wasn't "tough enough", according to the school's athletic booster club's website.

Belmont Mayor Pro Tem Richard Turner, who introduced the city resolution, said he had not consulted with the South Point principal or the Gaston County superintendent prior to drafting the document.

Turner also said he had not consulted with local Native Americans, but said he felt the mascot had positive attributes.

"Courage, Pride. I mean, there are a lot of elements of the warrior logo that are very positive images," he said.

Turner also said he did not believe the mascot was being used in a derogatory way.

"I have gone to these games just about ever since I've been here. I've never seen anybody do something disrespectful or inappropriate or dress in Indian headdress or Native apparel," Turner said.

Turner said he recognized the debate had split many people in the town, and there were passionate viewpoints on either side. The debate has even produced a pair of dueling online petitions — one petition calling for a mascot change has garnered more than 11,500 signatures, while a petition supporting the mascot has garnered more than 3,700 signatures.

"Belmont's a small town," he said. "There are a lot of people on this 'Retire the Red Raider' site that I know personally. We just happen on this issue to agree to disagree."

Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal