Catawba Chief Donald Rodgers is proud of his heritage and equally proud that the Indian Land community is, too.
As chief of the 2,000-plus member tribe, he also knows that his administration's decisions will never please everyone, but he has learned that you can't let that stop you from doing the right thing.
Last summer, when members of the Indian Land High School Booster Club asked him about nicknaming their football stadium “The Reservation” in honor of the tribe, Rodgers couldn't have been more pleased. As the crow flies, the Catawba Reservation is less than four miles from the school.
In some communities, nicknaming an athletic team after Native Americans has become increasingly controversial, and school districts and colleges have been forced to change their mascots.
Some Native Americans consider the use of names such as the Redskins derogatory. In 2005, the NCAA announced plans to prohibit college teams with Native American images deemed “hostile or abusive” from hosting postseason events or displaying the symbols during championship competitions.
Perhaps one of the best- known colleges with an Indian mascot is Florida State University and its Seminoles. The Seminole tribe of Florida has given its support to the university for the use of its name. A 2002 “Sports Illustrated” survey found that 81 percent of 351 Native Americans believed schools should not stop using Indian nicknames.
The NCAA later granted FSU a special exemption. It's estimated that more than 2,000 colleges and schools still use so-called “racial mascots.” More than 600 schools have changed or eliminated the use of Native American mascots in the past 35 years, according to a New York State Education Department study.
But at Indian Land – a name that dates to a 1763 British treaty establishing the 15-square mile reservation – history and tradition have trumped political correctness.
It's been the Indian Land High Warriors since 1928 and they have no plans to change. The football team's helmets feature a large blue arrowhead with the school's initials, IL.
The chief, who graduated from Rock Hill High, said he's glad to be associated with Indian Land.
“First of all, they didn't have to ask us at all, they could have just named the stadium anything they wanted,” said Rodgers. “Reservation is not an Indian word, it's a government word. I told them I'd have to discuss it with our executive committee but personally I thought it was a great way to honor our tribe.”
The committee approved it unanimously and on Sept. 12 the school unveiled The Reservation in huge white letters painted along the concrete wall at the base of the bleachers.
And not only that, but Rodgers suggested a Catawba dedication ceremony, and he came dressed in full regalia. He was accompanied by a tribal dancer and drummers. The tribe and school exchanged footballs dedicated to preserving “honor, respect and heritage” between the tribe, school and community. Also accompanying the group was former Catawba Executive Committee member Buck George, who was a football star at Rock Hill High and Clemson, and was drafted by but did not play for the Washington Redskins.
“I had never seen the tribe all fitted out, it gave me chills to see them out there on the field,” said booster club member John Mace. “I mean, when you think about all the connections between the Catawbas to the river and this community, it made it extra special.”
Mace said the stadium name came up last summer when several other booster club members – Dave Helms, Brad Hartley, Bobby Jones and Henry Stegall – were brainstorming about how to get the fans fired up about the new football season.
“The next day I called Chief Rodgers, and we'd already decided if the tribe didn't like the idea, we'd drop it,” said Mace, the father of six, including his son Johnny, a middle linebacker on the Indian Land junior varsity. “From there, the idea just took off; I was frankly surprised at the amount of support in the community.”
Mace said the Sept. 12 game against Central Pageland was the second-largest crowd in school history, 978 fans. The booster club has raised $30,000 for a new weight room, and the new field house was scheduled to open this weekend.
With the exception of the Warriors coming out on the losing end of the 35-0 game, Mace said The Reservation was a huge success.
“The crowd loved the tribal dancing and drumming, there were no protesters,” he said. “Except for the score, it was a great way to start the season.”
Rodgers estimates that among tribal members he's talked with, about 75 percent enthusiastically supported the stadium name.
“Like I say, you can't please everyone. And yes, I think some names such as Redskins and Squaws can be derogatory,” he said. “But the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and the Indian Land Warriors are names to be proud of. They were named after people who fought fiercely for what they believed in My thoughts are you can get caught up in all the negativity or accept The Reservation for what it is – a point of pride.”