Tuesday, June 25, 2002

The Bush administration has begun a civil rights investigation into the use of American Indian symbols and tribal names in West Virginia’s 4-H Club chapter.
The Agriculture Department began investigating yesterday a complaint it received last year from a West Virginia parent whose daughter had attended a 4-H summer camp in 2000. The results of the unprecedented investigation will be forwarded to the Justice Department, which could end federal funding for the state’s 4-H program.
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Maria Bynum said that if the investigation uncovers civil rights violations, her agency will seek a voluntary agreement with West Virginia University, which runs the state 4-H program through its extension service.
“If the department exhausts all efforts to seek a voluntary agreement, the matter may be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for pursuit of a civil enforcement action,” Miss Bynum said.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Based on the investigation’s findings, the Justice Department could order an end to the $4.5 million the Agriculture Department gives each year to the university and its 4-H program.
For 80 years, camping groups in West Virginia’s 4-H chapter have used the names of the Cherokee, Delaware, Mingo and Seneca Indian tribes and gather in the evenings in Indian-inspired council circles that sometimes involve war whoops, “spirit sticks,” ceremonial face paint and headdresses.
In the fall, a Roane County, W.Va., man filed a civil rights complaint with the Agriculture Department, which funds state 4-H programs through its Office of Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service after he and his wife saw how Indian customs were used when their 9-year-old daughter attended a 4-H summer camp in 2000.
“We were totally blindsided,” said Wess Harris, a farmer and sociologist. “When we saw what was going on, we thought it was totally inappropriate.”
Mr. Harris, 52, calls himself a “white guy dealing with a white people’s problem.”
“It’s not about political correctness, it’s about racism,” he said. “I want to believe they’re taking it seriously.”
Mr. Harris said assertions that the 4-H traditions are observed for their educational value are wrong. Totem poles and teepees were not used by the Indian tribes that the 4-H identifies in the summer camps, he said.
“When you’re hearing things like, ‘It’s treated with a great deal of respect’ no, no, no. It’s a marketing tool,” he said.
Mr. Harris said he was not “looking for a fight” when he filed his complaint, but that he has received threats stemming from his complaint and had to withdraw his daughter from 4-H.
Kate Burbank, who leads the 4-H chapter in Roane County, said she welcomes the investigation.
“If we’ve been doing things wrong or in violation, then we want to know about it,” she said.
Mrs. Burbank, 55, has been a 4-H leader for 33 years in the county and was a member for nine years when she was a girl.
“We don’t feel like we’re doing anything too wrong,” she said. “We’ve had Native Americans in our program, and they were fine with it.”
In March, an internal program review conducted by national 4-H officials, at the request of WVU, recommended that the practices be discontinued.
Jim Spurling, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department’s extension service, said the review’s recommendations were nonbinding. “They can take the information we provide and either use it or not use it,” he said.
Mr. Spurling said investigators who conducted the review were aware of the civil rights complaint.
As a result of the review, chapter leaders announced 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.
But on April 9, WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr. and the university’s Extension Service Director Larry Cote reversed the decision, saying the order was ambiguous.
Also facing a lawsuit from 4-H alumni who objected to the change, the officials opted to conduct a yearlong review to determine which specific practices are offensive in an effort to retain as many of the customs as possible.
“Right now, we’re just proceeding without internal review,” said Ann Bailey Berry, a spokeswoman for the WVU Extension Service. “What we’ve said is, we’re doing camp as usual. We’re slowing down this process.”
Miss Berry said state 4-H officials have been in contact with the Agriculture Department and that a representative for the agency has visited one of the 4-H summer camps.
In the meantime, Miss Berry said, the state has outlawed at least one practice. “Face painting is definitely out,” she said. “What we’ve said to our agents and our camp volunteers is to use common sense.”

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