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'Red Raiders' are retired quietly in one NC town, but not in Belmont

red_raiders_sign.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
The Red Raiders mascot in Belmont has divided the town but officials have resisted change.

This summer marks 20 years since the State Board of Education recommended North Carolina schools stop the use of Native American people as mascots. Since that time, more than half of the 73 public schools that once used such logos or nicknames have made changes.

South Point High School in Gaston County has not.

The school is among a dwindling group of North Carolina schools that still uses a Native American mascot. Through years of protests and petitions, the South Point Red Raiders problem has divided the town of Belmont.

One nearby North Carolina school managed to avoid similar tensions over its own Red Raiders name by turning it into an opportunity to engage the community.

Harry M. Arndt Middle School in Catawba County joined the list of schools to shift mascots two years ago.

Before the change, Principal Jennifer Stodden says she hadn’t received complaints about the school’s Red Raiders mascot. But she saw there was a debate happening nationally.

“The beginning of the conversation was with the Washington Redskins," she said. "And, you know, there were some things that were changing and happening with national-level teams and mascots.”

At that time, in 2020, the now Washington Commanders were in the process of ditching its controversial name - one long rejected by the National Congress of American Indians and other groups.

Stodden decided it would be a good time for her school community to address its own identity. After discussing the topic with district officials, she began conversations with parents and students.

“They gave me the autonomy to be able to start the conversations with our school community,” she said. “I had a lot of comfort in being able to reach out to not only our PTO, but our parents that come in and volunteer, just sitting at the athletic events that I would attend; club nights that I would attend. Any opportunity that I had to start that conversation, I did.”

Ultimately, the school decided to keep its logo, a capital letter A with a spear through it, and change its mascot to the Warriors.

“I had a little student committee and we talked about what does a warrior stand for? What does that mean? How are we going to make sure this best fits our school and who we are? And what does a mascot mean?” Stodden said.

Those conversations, she says, helped smooth the transition.

“I think that just with us being a close school community and having those open conversations before any changes were made was, you know, very, very important in this whole process,” Stodden said.

Different counties, different approaches

The experience in Catawba County is very different from the petitions and protests in Gaston County, where its Board of Education says the decision should be made at the school level.

In Belmont, Rebecca LaClaire of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs says it is unfair to place the responsibility on South Point High School.

LaClaire: “If the principal said, 'okay, we're going to remove the mascot,' all of these parents, all of these supporters of the Red Raiders would go to the school board and demand his job. That's exactly what would happen.”

Principal Gary Ford, who has not responded to requests for comment, also faces uncertain terrain with county officials.

Belmont Mayor Charlie Martin says the county Board of Education supported the City Council’s recent resolution to reaffirm its approval of the Red Raiders mascot.

Martin said the school administration was consulted prior to the resolution. When asked if the administration was supportive of it, he said, “Well, the school board is.”

The Gaston County Board of Education has not taken a formal stance on the issue and does not have a mascot policy.

Many other school districts across North Carolina have discussed mascot changes, says

Julia Hegele, the state Department of Administration’s communications director.

“Ultimately, the responsibility lies up to, as we understand it, up to the school districts. So, you know, we can recommend and we can advise, but ultimately it's a school board decision,” Hegele said.

Community debate

One Native American parent in Belmont, Becky Rice Gaither, shared her concerns at the most recent Gaston County Board of Education meeting.

“Should I remind you that your mission statement is to provide an innovative, educational, safe place for all students in a nurturing, learning environment? This would include Native American students,” Gaither said at the meeting.

She says her children have faced racism and insensitivity in the Gaston County school system. Gaither worries about the disregard for Native Americans who live in the community, as she described in the city council resolution.

“They put it into the resolution that the use of native themed images or symbols can be authentic, appropriate and accurate when used carefully with cultural sensitivity and with the council of the local Native American tribes,” Gaither said. “Well, the local tribes in this area weren't consulted. They weren't advised.”

Red Raiders supporter Jason Rumfelt said there are local Native Americans who were consulted and who support the mascot but he won’t say who.

“I'm not going to release their names or identity,” he said. “I'm not about to put them in a position where, you know, they could be ostracized for an opposing view on this.”

LaClaire says it’s clear what needs to happen, even if the school administration remains silent.

“If you have Native Americans who attend the school and they're saying that the mascot’s offensive if it offends one, that's enough to remove it,” LaClaire said.

The North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education has considered recommending stronger action that would eliminate all Native American mascots from public schools by the start of the 2023-24 school year.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.