citybeat (2007-05)

Council advises that a proposed renovation may only be a first step

Tennessee public schools' Native American mascots embattled

Wednesday, Jan. 24

Whither the Amphitheater?

In the end, City Council voted this week to renovate the Tennessee Amphitheater along with the Sunsphere as part of the city's ongoing effort at revamping World's Fair Park. Yet somehow the future of the 25-year-old covered outdoor theater, which someone once jokingly dubbed "The Dolly Parton Pavilion" in light of its distinctive appearance, seemed scarcely more certain than when the Council meeting began on Tuesday night.

"I want to caution Council that this may not be the last time we find ourselves voting on the amphitheater," said Councilman Joe Hultquist, who voted for the renovation despite some reservations.

Council approved two separate measures that would collectively allocate $1.8 million from the 2005 sale of the Candy Factory building and the adjacent Victorian houses on the edge of the park toward renovation of both the Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater. Additionally, architect Bruce McCarty, the amphitheater's original designer, has volunteered his architectural services to the city for preserving the amphitheater free of charge.

Saving the Sunsphere was a given, especially since the city accepted a proposal from developers Kinsey, Probasco, Hays & Associates last year to lease the Sunsphere and provide for its reuse with a food service and catering operation, an observation deck, and additional office space. The amphitheater, however, was scarcely addressed by Kinsey, or by any of the other contractors who submitted proposals to the city for World's Fair Park renovation.

"We had a workshop last fall, and I made a joke that it was the 'We-Saved-the-Sunsphere-Now-We-Can-Justify-Tearing-Down-the-Amphitheater-Workshop'," says Councilman Rob Frost, who describes himself as a leading proponent of preserving the amphitheater.

But nearly half of the Council seemed oblivious to the outcome of that November workshop, in which the participants apparently discussed several options, including razing the amphitheater; taking down the roof; or renovating it extensively as a full-fledged concert venue again at a cost of nearly $3 million. They ultimately decided on a fourth option--a less expensive partial renovation that would save the distinctive roof structure, but leave it short of a full performance venue--the one Council approved 6-3 Tuesday night at the end of a lengthy discussion.

The doubts a few councilmen expressed--and which were either left unresolved or simply not addressed at the fall workshop--concerned the notion of a partial renovation of the amphitheater. "I'm worried about going only halfway," said Councilman Mark Brown. Brown joined Joe Bailey and Bob Becker as the three voting against the amphitheater proposal.

"My understanding is that we're fixing it up so maybe folks could have a picnic under it now," Brown added. "That's an awfully expensive picnic."

City Senior Director for Policy Development Bill Lyons said earlier Tuesday that the renovated amphitheater will probably not be used for city-sponsored "ticketed" activities, but will be open for general public use and perhaps special events. "It will be sort of an everyday element of the park now," he says.

To make it a viable state-of-the-art concert venue once again would require perhaps $3 million, some of which would go toward a new sound system and some of which would go toward bringing the facility up to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The cost of the renovation Council approved will be about $850,000.

But Hultquist and a few other councilmen suggested that a partial renovation would be unsatisfactory over the long haul, when the city inevitably tires of paying for the upkeep of an amphitheater used only for reunion picnics and theater rehearsals. The vote was almost put off; a vote to postpone failed by only 5-4. Finally, Council ratified the measure that may pave the way for further renovations somewhere down the road.

  "I'm glad we're keeping it; that in 20 years we won't be kicking ourselves for knocking down a perfectly good facility, a prime public performance space," he says. "That amphitheater is unique. There are very few left in the world of that design. I live in a 112-year-old home, so I appreciate preservation."

In the meantime, the measure to put about $1 million toward Sunsphere renovation passed more-or-less without controversy. Mayor Bill Haslam noted that a $1 million allocation that Council had previously set aside for the Sunsphere redevelopment in 2004 will go toward sidewalk improvements in various communities instead, now that the Candy Factory monies are in hand. The sidewalk projects include Fountain City, along Jacksboro Pike and near Austin-East High School.

Cowboys or Indians?

Nearly 24 high schools and 80 middle and elementary schools in Tennessee have Native American mascots. Tom Kunesh wants that statistic to change.

On Jan. 26, Kunesh, a member of the Advisory Council on Tennessee Indian Affairs, hand-delivered a resolution to the Human Rights Commission intending to spark dialogue on the dispute, which reaches back to the 1970s when the University of Oklahoma opted to drop its mascot Little Red.

The resolution was adopted and signed by the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs in December of 2005, advocating "the elimination of Native American Indian mascots in state public schools." Why the document remained dormant for more than a year is unclear--as is the reason why Kunesh, who as of press time was not a member of the commission, was the one who took the first step.

"As a concerned citizen, I am taking the document to the Rights Commission so that they will have it, and perhaps dialogue can begin. It is immaterial how the resolution got from one place to another," Kunesh says last week from his home in Chattanooga. "I am going to take it very quietly and respectfully and express my concern."

Both Loudon and South-Doyle High Schools have Native American mascots. Loudon adopted "Redskins" as its nickname in 1948, while South-Doyle earned the "Cherokees" moniker when South-Young and Doyle High Schools consolidated in 1992.

"I was still a football coach at Powell when they brought together the two schools to decide on a mascot," S-D principal Rick Walker says, "so I really don't know how they came up with that name."

When Walker assumed his position a decade ago, S-D attempted to start a football tradition similar to the Florida State University Seminoles by having a person dressed in Indian garb ride on horseback to the middle of the field, opening the game with a spear hurled to the ground. Walker said the ritual ended the night it began--but not because of any Indian activists.

"The horse decided to do his 'business' on the field, so the health department put an end to that," he says.

"But we don't dress anyone up anymore, and I don't consider anything we do derogatory. I don't think our kids really think a thing about having an Indian mascot."

More than mascots, David Teat, chairman of the Advisory Council, is appalled at the amount of Native American material that is privy to high school students.

"Most of the mascots used in Tennessee are plains Indians, who are not even indigenous to this area," he says. "There is a lack of education in grade schools. They are taught nothing about the culture and heritage of Native Americans."

The Cherokee Nation has headquarters located in Oklahoma and North Carolina, although there are some small non-recognized tribes in Tennessee. The descriptor "Redskin" was born after the European colonization of America, when colonists began developing terms to delineate races. Most Native Americans now consider it a pejorative, which is why members of the Advisory Council find it difficult to justify using it as a mascot name.

"Would you call a school the Blackskins?" asks Don Merzlack, who is a member of the Advisory Council and resides in Greeneville. "I'm tired of people defining who we are, creating a race of people locked in the 1865 time period."

Kippy Vaughn, who is vice chair of the Commission, says there are no imminent plans for drafting a bill, though the topic will likely be on the agenda at the next meeting in March. But word of the resolution was heard around the high school community last week, leaving many principals to wonder what might become of their school's tomahawk chops and tribal chants if and when a bill is sent to the Capitol.

Although Walker admits the burden to switch nicknames would not affect S-D as much as schools with longer-standing nicknames, he said a financial burden would be felt.

S-D's football players have Indian spears adorning their helmets, and the school often uses the side profile of a disembodied Indian head for its logo.

"It would change a lot of things," Walker says. "You have to think of the cost of redoing everything. It would definitely be a new problem to deal with, but if it happens, it happens. And we'll deal with coming up with a new mascot."

Kunesh, who was instrumental in convincing UT-Chattanooga to stop using Chief Moccanooga as its mascot, said he is hopeful legislation will not be necessary and schools will make the switch voluntarily.

"Look at UTC, who was not forced to change. And the same with Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, when they changed from 'Indians' to 'Redhawks,'" Kunesh says. "Using images without the blessing of the particular group is immoral and wrong, and I have a hard time believing so many people are blind to this."



Wednesday, Jan. 24

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Monday, Jan. 29

Tuesday, Jan. 30