War whoops and tomahawk chops. White students with red face-paint and headdresses, “playing Indian” at football games and mocking our tribal customs and spiritual traditions. Inaccurate depictions of generic 18th-century Plains Indians who bear no resemblance to my people’s actual past or present.
As a Lumbee citizen living in a part of North Carolina where Native Americans are less than 1% of the population, I’m familiar with the offensive ways we are portrayed as mascots at schools like South Point High School in Belmont, home of the “Red Raider.”
I’ve also grown familiar with responses from non-Native community members and alumni when Native Americans say these mascots are offensive and harmful: “But we’re honoring you!” “If we get rid of mascots, Native Americans will be completely forgotten.” “I’m part Cherokee and I’m not offended.”
In summer 2020 when Native leaders, South Point community members and I launched the Retire the Red Raider effort we encountered every one of these timeworn responses, as well as a fair amount of profanity, threats and insults.
Set aside the extensive research on the harmful effects of Native mascots on Native young people’s self-esteem and future aspirations. Set aside how these mascots perpetuate negative, inaccurate stereotypes of Native Americans as violent and savage, create a false sense of Native Americans as mythical or extinct figures, and dehumanize us. Even set aside that Native Americans are the only race routinely portrayed as mascots. At the end of the day, how can you say you honor us when you won’t listen to us?
According to the State Board of Education, the responsibility for school mascots lies with Gaston County Schools — which is also responsible for providing a safe and equitable learning environment for students of all races under state and federal law.
In July 2020, Metrolina Native American Association, a state-recognized Urban Indian Center representing 20,000 Native Americans in the Charlotte area, whose board I chair, sent a letter to the Gaston County School Board calling for the retirement of the Red Raider mascot. We received no response.
Our offers of programming on Native American history and requests to meet with the school principal were ignored or denied. And in August 2021, Superintendent Jeff Booker denied a formal request from Metrolina to place the mascot issue on the school board agenda without offering an explanation, then ignored a request for a meeting with tribal leaders.
The North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, representing all eight N.C. tribes, also wrote to Gaston County Schools recommending the Red Raider and other American Indian mascots be retired — 20 years after the Commission passed a resolution calling for retirement of all such mascots. The board ignored the Commission.
The Lumbee Tribal Council passed a resolution calling for the retirement of the Red Raider. In June 2021, Lumbee Tribal Council members traveled from Pembroke, N.C., to address the Gaston County Board of Education and call for the retirement of the Red Raider. The board ignored the tribal leaders’ concerns.
The board has also ignored 15 months of public comment, protests and advocacy from concerned students, alumni and Native Americans imploring them to at least put the issue on the agenda. By ignoring the issue the board is presumably trying to avoid risking electoral backlash from non-Native alumni and community members who feel a great deal of ownership over and devotion to the Red Raider.
With its inaction, Gaston County Schools is sending a clear message: Native Americans are not honored, valued or listened to in Gaston County. But we will not go away or be silent, and whether the school board eventually does the right thing — or is forced to by the state or the courts — we won’t stop until we retire the Red Raider.
Rebecca LaClaire is a Lumbee citizen, chair of the Metrolina Native American Association, a Commissioner on the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, and a founding organizer of the Retire the Red Raider campaign.