NEW PORT RICHEY — Where area festivals are concerned, some things go hand in hand. With the Little Everglades Steeplechase, it's horses and big hats. Land O'Lakes has flapjacks. And Chasco Fiesta promises American Indian culture.
Each year, members of the American Indian Movement of Florida have protested during the 11-day festival, saying it demeans their culture. In the early part of the decade, the event was marked by arrests. In one case, a man (who was not a member of AIM) spent 30 days in jail after he blocked the path of the street parade by chaining himself to a hook he had placed in the road.
After a few years of laying low, the movement is vocal again, announcing plans to protest a float in this year's street parade set for March 21.
Organizers say they never missed a protest. Last year, members weren't as visible because they arrived late to the parade, said Ruby Beaulieu, AIM's executive director.
"People think we didn't protest last year, but we did," she said. "We have protested every year for I don't know how long."
The part of the parade that really angers the protestors is the Chasco Krewe float. The float features community members wearing feathers and Indian garb.
Krewe members and festival organizers have always claimed to pay tribute to American Indians and educate people about their culture.
Beaulieu's group sees things differently.
"AIM contends desecrating Native American culture with headdresses, whooping and hollering, wearing buckskin, feathers and beads is nothing but a mockery," she said in a news release sent out Friday.
Beaulieu said the feathers are to be used in spiritual ceremonies, not "fun and games."
She would not discuss the ceremonies but compared the float to desecration of Christian sacraments.
"We would never see a float with a pope on in which they were throwing out communion wafers," she said.
Beaulieu promised the protests will be peaceful. She said the group will hold up signs during the parade and hand out fliers.
She said the group has made progress over the years. For example, organizers no longer have children re-enact the fictitious story of Queen Chasco and her consort, Pithla.
"It made Native Americans look savage and pagan," she said.
Also, the festival features more American Indian vendors and artists.
"It's 100 percent better than what it was," she said.
Festival organizers say protestors are welcome as long as they don't disrupt the events.
"It's a free country," said Wendy Brenner, the festival's executive director.
She said organizers are trying to do a good thing and help non-profit agencies in a time when more people are turning to them for help.
This year's event includes a drive for food pantries "because they are all empty."
Most events are free, and vendors have been asked to keep prices down because of the sour economy.
New Port Richey police say peaceful demonstrations are allowed, but they will be ready to arrest anyone who causes a disruption.
"Protestors cross the line when they start to interfere with the normal flow of the parade, when they enter the parade route or are throwing items at the participants or spectators," said Capt. Jeffrey Harrington.
Harrington, who helped coordinate security for the 2008 campaign stops of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, said the agency will be "ready for all contingencies."
The man who was arrested in 2004, Daniel Callaghan, said he is considering protesting this year, but he won't be chaining himself to the road again.
"That's not on the agenda," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.