Published Online: January 29, 2003
Published in Print: January 29, 2003, as Federal File

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'Playing Indian'

Tribal names and ceremonies will continue to color the 4-H campfires of West Virginia. But feather headdresses and various kinds of painted faces, dances, and cheers will vanish.

So say the directors of the West Virginia University Extension Service, who issued new recommendations late last year to the 90 or so 4-H camps they sponsor. A complaint that their activities perpetuated stereotypes about Native Americans had made it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and threatened the state's 4-H funding from the USDA.

The changes emerged from a six-month review of the program, during which the extension service took comments from 4-H staff members, alumni, and the American Indian community.

Native American study "was introduced as a means of remembering the people who were before us," said David Snively, an assistant director with the extension service. "It really was meant as a respectful thing."

Longtime 4-H practices such as the use of tribal monikers like Delaware and Mingo will remain for summer 2003 camps. So will a tribal benediction and some ceremonies, songs, and cheers. But wearing headdresses and painting faces in a way that "mimics or stereotypes" American Indians will stop, along with cheers and dances deemed offensive. The service is also recommending that local 4-H groups include lessons about present-day Native Americans.

The Agriculture Department could have withheld $4.5 million in annual funding for extension service's 4-H programs, if they were found to have violated civil rights law, West Virginia officials said. The department is still investigating the issue, spokeswoman Maria Bynum said.

The case drew the interest of Indian groups nationwide, said Vernon Bellecourt, the director for international affairs with the American Indian Movement, in Minneapolis. The 4-H has a right to educate children about Indian culture, he said, but stereotypical depictions— what he called "playing Indian"—should be banned.

The West Virginia extension service's efforts have not satisfied all the critics, Mr. Snively acknowledged. But he said he sees no basis for a civil rights complaint against the service, which he said has retained a lawyer to help with the issue. Mr. Snively said a number of states are considering modifying their 4-H programs to head off similar complaints.

"We're kind of a test case for this," he said.

— Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 22, Issue 20, Page 21

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