INDIAN LAND -- Decades of unofficial shared heritage between area Catawba Indians and high school sports becomes an official common bond Friday night under the lights of a football field, when tribal leaders plan to formally accept an invitation from the Indian Land High School "Warriors" to nickname the school's gridiron field "The Reservation."
But the merger of school and tribe comes with the dual-edged barb of controversy over Indian mascots for sports teams with the potential for divisiveness among Catawbas who might dislike the term "Indian Land" and the mascot "Warrior."
At least the school asked the Catawbas' leaders what they thought first: John Mace with the school's booster club approached Catawba Indian Chief Donald Rodgers with the offer two months ago.
"If he didn't want to do it, we wouldn't have gone any further," Mace said. "We wanted it to be an honor."
Tribal executive committee members talked over the idea and agreed, describing the union as a winner for the Indian Land community/school and the tribe, even if some controversy comes with the package.
"To me, this is not offensive at all but part of a shared history," said Rodgers, a graduate of Rock Hill High School. "We have some tribal children at this school. And over the years, I always found that I rooted for the team called Indian Land. It was like our team in a way. They called me out of respect for our tribe."
The area in the northern Lancaster County panhandle across the Catawba River from what is now the Catawba Indian Nation reservation has been called "Indian Land" by white settlers since at least the mid-1700s, Rodgers said, and its history as a place populated by Catawbas goes back centuries. The school mascot has been the Warrior since at least the 1920s when a single Indian Land High school replaced several area hamlet high schools, but until now, there was no official connection between the tribe and the school. Indian Land is not officially a town, but a general place north of S.C. 5 toward the North Carolina line.
The stadium name idea came as the school worked to remedy what parents, students and area residents told school officials was a lack of school spirit, said Mike Mayer, football coach and athletic director. Kathy Faris, principal at the school, said the decision wasn't political, but rather a way for Indian Land's school community to "honor the tribe that gives the area and school its name and history."
Yet some Catawbas will not like the decision to call the field "The Reservation," Rodgers and Assistant Chief Gene Blue acknowledged, and it has been little publicized among the tribe's members.
One of those with mixed feelings is tribal member Rod Beck, with a long history of speaking up against tribal decisions he opposes. Beck said Wednesday he can "see the lights from the football field at Indian Land on Friday nights from my back door" on the reservation in York County. But he and others had no idea the executive committee -- the tribe's elected leadership -- were even considering any offer from Indian Land, or that there even was an offer.
"The mascot, personally, has never bothered me," Beck said. "But this hasn't been discussed by the General Council (tribal membership). I sure don't want to give away our birthright."
The Catawbas' history of treatment by schools and governments has not always been rosy. Catawba students until the age of civil rights fights -- much more publicized for Jim Crow laws concerning black segregation -- were generally not allowed in white schools in this area. The tribe filed a lawsuit over 144,000 acres on both sides of the river -- including acreage in Indian Land -- over disputed land claims that only ended in 1993 with a $50 million settlement with the state and federal governments.
Faris said the issue of the mascot does come up periodically among a few residents -- mainly newcomers -- who ask if the school is going to change. For many American Indians, the mascot debate is, "you either love it or hate it," said Rodgers, who added that he dislikes the name "Redskins" that the Washington NFL team has used for so long. But "Warriors" isn't derogatory, Rodgers said.
Indian mascots have provoked controversy from high schools to the pro ranks of football and baseball. Some colleges, such a St. Johns, changed school mascots after the controversies. In California, a school district is in the midst of a holding a vote over whether to change the team name from "Redskins."
But area schools have not changed. Another high school just west of York County, the Gaffney Indians, has played its home games at a stadium nicknamed "The Reservation" for years. Newberry College here in South Carolina and Catawba College in North Carolina, both close by, are the Indians. And Catawba leaders over the years -- especially longtime Chief Gilbert Blue -- had no problem with what were considered positive Indian mascot names.
Potential controversy aside, Friday was chosen for the dedication because it's Indian Land's first home game of the season. Mace of the booster club painted the words "The Reservation" on walls on both sides of the field.
A Catawba traditional dancer will perform before the game, gifts will be exchanged, and Rodgers will offer a traditional Catawba blessing to the field.
"This is a new era," Rodgers said. "I will be honored for opposing teams to come in here and say they are going to have a battle on the 'The Rez' tonight."
Andrew Dys • 329-4065 | firstname.lastname@example.org