- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

A U.S. Department of Agriculture program review of a West Virginia 4-H Club chapter has already recommended abandoning the use of Indian themes in summer camps a strong indication, officials say, that a civil rights investigation will result in the end of such practices.

In March, a seven-member team composed of Agriculture Department officials and 4-H officials conducted a weeklong review of the club's Indian practices in West Virginia.

According to a March 22 report written by Robert Ray Meadows, Virginia 4-H director and member of the program review team, one of the "identified weaknesses" of using Indian themes was they "may be a violation of civil rights legislation."

Officials on the committee contend that the youth group's historical use of Indian symbols and costumes reinforce racial stereotypes and are now considered insensitive and disrespectful.

The report recommended the state chapter "immediately discontinue the practices of using Native American tribal names and customs as the basis of the 4-H camping program at the state and county levels before the 2002 camping season."

"That was our recommendation, and we're trying to see the issue is resolved so we can continue to operate these programs in West Virginia," USDA Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Herglotz said.

"Civil rights issues in general are something this agency takes very seriously," Mr. Herglotz said, referring to the department's settlement of a class-action lawsuit in 1999 with 1,000 black farmers who said they had been discriminated against for decades when applying for loans.

Instead of immediately adopting the nonbinding program review's recommendations, West Virginia extension service officials say they are proceeding with their own internal review to determine which of the specific practices face painting, naming groups of campers after Indian tribes and awarding spirit sticks are "offensive" with an eye toward keeping intact as many of the traditions as possible.

In the meantime, they say they are running "camp as usual" and cooperating fully with the federal investigation.

The program review was initiated in March at the request of West Virginia University officials after a Spencer, W.Va., man filed a civil rights complaint last fall. Wess Harris, 52, said he thought the customs were "inappropriate" after his 9-year-old daughter attended a 4-H summer camp in 2000.

Mr. Herglotz said the Agriculture Department's internal civil rights investigation into Mr. Harris' complaint is "part of a standard procedure that is followed" when Title VI complaints are filed.

"We are obligated by the law and our requirements to make sure resources we administer comply with the laws," he said. "If complaints come in, USDA employees will look into that."

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifies public funds "not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination."

The Agriculture Department funds state 4-H programs through its Office of Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. If the Indian-inspired practices are found to be discriminatory, the Agriculture Department hopes to negotiate a resolution with the state extension service.

If no agreement is reached, the Justice Department could order an end to the $4.5 million the Agriculture Department gives each year to West Virginia University and its 4-H program.

Founded in 1902 in the rural Midwest, 4-H began as an after-school club to teach students how to run productive farms. Today, more than 2 million members focus on leadership, earth science and nutrition, as well as the traditional livestock and plant projects.

In West Virginia 44,000 children are members along with 7,000 adult volunteers.

Donald T. Floyd, president and chief executive officer of the National 4-H Council, said he has "every confidence" the two sides will be able to resolve what he called "a complex issue."

Mr. Herglotz couldn't provide a timeline for completion of the West Virginia investigation but said if complaints are received from other state 4-H chapters they also will be addressed.

"You would have to look at the merits of the complaint," Mr. Herglotz said, adding that 4-H chapters are run at the state level and practices and customs vary from state to state.

Alice Huffman, information resource co-director of the American Indian Movement Support Group of Ohio and Northern Kentucky, said that's precisely what she's hoping for.

"I think it should serve as an impetus for other states to do the same," Ms. Huffman said. "That's our hope, that other people will see what has happened and see why and do the right and respectful thing."

Ms. Huffman, who has sent letters to the National 4-H Council and the Agriculture Department asking them to abandon the Indian themes in summer camps, says the practices reinforce negative stereotypes, and efforts to educate children about American Indians are undercut when they are taught to make toy totem poles and headdresses.

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" and ceremonial face paint.

According to the program review report, Indian themes were first invoked in West Virginia's 4-H camps to honor Indians and "teach a sense of community."

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