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Battling over a school's symbols

A student of Chumash descent wants Native American-themed images

March 15, 2009|Steve Chawkins

CARPINTERIA, CALIF. — For 81 years, Carpinteria residents have cheered on their high school's Warriors. And for about that long, graduating classes, community boosters and students have bestowed on the campus an array of Native American-themed logos, statues, murals and decals -- all without any public protest.

But last year, a student of Chumash descent named Eli Cordero asked the school board to eliminate the symbols, though not the Warriors name. It was the kind of request that has rattled educators elsewhere for decades, and it triggered an uproar that could resound even after Tuesday, when the board finally is to rule which images to keep and which to ditch.

Since Eli approached the board last March, Carpinteria -- a seaside town that takes pride in its avocados, its flowers and "the world's safest beach" -- has been a bit less laid back than usual.

Each side in the conflict has allegedly threatened violence. Board member Leslie Deardorff, who opposed the imagery, pulled her son from Carpinteria High -- the town's only public high school -- after he was harassed. Hundreds of students walked out of class and marched to district administration offices to protest the possible loss of their Warrior images. Angry missives sizzled across the Internet, charging racism by those who want to retain the images and knee-jerk political correctness by those who want them gone.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Carpinteria High Warriors: In an article in Sunday's California section about objections to Carpinteria High's Indian-themed symbols, Scott Braithwaite was described as alumni association president. Braithwaite is a former class president who created CarpHighAlumni.com; there is no alumni association.

For activists on both sides, the board's decision won't come a moment too soon.

"This has been absolutely gut-wrenching for me," said Jeff Moorhouse, a Carpinteria High alumnus and leader of a group whose name is taken from the school's unofficial motto: "Warrior Spirit Never Dies!"

"I want it to be ended," he said. "It needs to end."

Board member Beverly Grant, who believes the images are damaging stereotypes and who was the target of an unsuccessful recall effort led by Moorhouse, expressed the same urgency.

"When this first happened, I couldn't squeeze a tomato in the grocery store without someone coming up and saying something nasty to me," said Grant, a retired parole official. "They act like we're trying to kill them, but we're just trying to bring them into the 21st century."

At the center of the storm is a 16-year-old junior who said he wears his hair shoulder-length as a tribute to his forebears, the Native Americans who made their home on California's Central Coast. Eli sees "Warriors" as an ethnically neutral name, but he said the images have irked him ever since he was a child.

"There's the big head in the parking lot," he said, referring to a concrete bust of a headdress-clad Plains Indian chief that was a gift to the school from the Class of 1970. "That's prejudice right there, looking you in the face."

By all accounts, it has been many years since a mascot in Native American regalia walked the sidelines at Warriors games. But with the Warriors tradition going strong since 1928, Indian images adorn athletic patches, window stickers, T-shirts, even floor mats. An outdoor mural on the gym shows a chief flanked by likenesses of standout student golfers, basketball players and other athletes.

Many Carpinterians see most of the images as dignified and respectful, a tribute to Native Americans throughout the United States. They see nothing wrong with the Warriors logo: a stylized "C" incorporating an arrow and two feathers, despite assertions that it makes inappropriate use of sacred ceremonial items.

"It's not a racial issue," Moorhouse said. "Many people here grew up proud to be a Warrior, proud to call ourselves Warriors. It's not about a team; it's about a community."

But such arguments are a tough sell to critics, who say the use of human figures as mascots is demeaning.

"We don't have Jews out there dancing with yarmulkes," Grant said.

Eli said he was inspired to protest after attending a discrimination workshop that was part of the high school's "Be the Change" week. But critics say he was a pawn.

"The American Indian Movement is behind this," said Scott Braithwaite, an Elk Grove social worker who is president of the school's alumni association. "They found a kid and a cause celebre, and there they go."

CorineFairbanks, leader of AIM's Santa Barbara chapter, said it was established only last December, months after the Carpinteria controversy erupted. The national group had not heard of Eli, said Fairbanks, although it and various civil liberties groups now support his cause.

Teams named for tribes have long riled activist groups, though not necessarily some of their Native American namesakes.

In Los Angeles, the school board eliminated Native American team names in 1998. The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. bars postseason games at schools with such names, a rule that transformed the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Savages into the Savage Storm.

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