- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

West Virginia's 4-H chapter last week reversed a decision to abandon the use of Indian symbols and tribal names in its activities and will instead spend a year trying to determine whether any of the practices are truly offensive, a spokeswoman for the state chapter said.

Leaders of the chapter announced on March 22 that, starting in June, they were doing away with Indian traditions at 4-H activities and summer camps at the direction of the Agriculture Department, which funds 4-H through its Office of Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

"We acted on what we thought were very clear directives from the USDA," said Ann Berry, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia University Extension Service, which oversees the state's 4-H chapter.

But on April 9, WVU President David Hardesty and WVU Extension Service Director Larry Cote reversed the decision, saying the order was ambiguous. They announced the yearlong review to determine which specific practices are offensive in an effort to retain as many of the customs as possible.

Jim Spurling, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department's extension service, said his agency doesn't have the authority to withhold the $4.5 million in federal funds the university, the university's extension service and the state chapter receive.

"In my opinion, as far as I know, there had to be a misunderstanding of some kind," Mr. Spurling said.

For 80 years, camping groups in West Virginia's 4-H chapter have taken the names of the Cherokee, Delaware, Mingo and Seneca Indian tribes. Campers gather in the evenings in Indian-inspired council circles and sometimes wear ceremonial face paint and Indian headdresses.

A national 4-H review committee in March said such practices might be offensive to American Indians after a West Virginia man cited their use in a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last fall.

Mr. Spurling said the most the review committee told the state chapter was "if the civil rights complaint goes forth, if it's found to be valid, if it goes through the whole process, then [the West Virginia chapter] could lose funding."

A representative in the civil rights office of the Agriculture Department did not return a phone call about the status of the complaint.

Miss Berry of WVU said the West Virginia chapter has asked for specific federal guidelines on how to proceed, but so far has received no response.

"There's just nothing we can offer," Mr. Spurling said, adding that it is up to the state chapters to determine whether they want to retain the Indian imagery and to what degree. "We don't run these programs. We don't tell them how to set up a 4-H summer camp."

Several state 4-H chapters, including Maryland and Virginia, have begun reviewing their use of American Indian customs.

Barry Garst, a Virginia 4-H extension specialist, said that in the short term, the state program has decided to abandon Indian chants and store-bought headdresses for the remainder of 2002 and that the program will align its educational components with the state's Standards of Learning curriculum.

He said the review was not initiated because of the threat of losing federal funds, but because it is "what we feel is right." Mr. Garst said initial feedback has been positive, and in September, a long-term review of the Indian-inspired customs will begin. The Virginia chapter has 181,000 members.

Representatives of the Maryland 4-H chapter, which has 45,000 members, say they are setting up a committee to examine the extent to which the chapter uses American Indian imagery.

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