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AIM protest denounces fest sponsor

Protesting the St. Petersburg Times' support of a popular community event, members of the American Indian Movement of Florida picketed the newspaper's west Pasco office Wednesday.

With sheriff's deputies keeping watch, a half-dozen protesters led by Pasco AIM director Ruby Beaulieu carried signs calling the Times racist for its sponsorship of New Port Richey's 81st annual Chasco Fiesta.

Larry Beasley, North Suncoast general manager for the Times, said the event is the year's major fundraiser for many local charities.

The paper's sponsorship "has nothing to do with race; it has to do with us helping to raise nearly $300,000 for 35 nonprofits," he said.

The event is based on a fictitious story written by a former postmaster depicting the capture of a Spanish expedition by Calusa Indians. A priest and a Spanish girl and boy were spared.

The children grew to become king and queen of the Indians _ converting them to Christianity, according to the story.

Parts of the 11-day festival have since come under fire, especially a pageant that was canceled this year and that in the past featured white children depicting Indians sacrificing and stabbing their peers who portrayed the Spanish.

The organization also criticized white residents _ organizers and members of the Krewe of Chasco _ for donning American Indian garb and headdress while riding floats and promoting the event throughout the state.

"What needs to happen is whites need to stop wearing these offensive outfits," Beaulieu said. "I don't think we would ever see a white person in black face on a float."

Chasco Fiesta began in 1922 to raise money for the local library. In 2002 it raised $287,000 for more than 30 local nonprofit agencies and charities.

Organizers said Chasco, which runs from March 20-30, educates people about American Indians through arts and crafts, a powwow and other programs.

The festival draws more than 100,000 participants including American Indian groups throughout the United States, Canada and South America, Chasco director Wendy Brenner said.

This year for the first time, American Indians will participate for the duration of the 11-day event.

Organizers said some $45,000 from sponsors such as New Port Richey, the Pasco Building Association and the Times will pay for dance performances, contests, storytelling, horse painting demonstrations and performances by poets and musicians.

Members of the local AIM chapter said that while they want to keep some parts of the event, the festival perpetuates stereotypes and depicts American Indians as savages.

"I'm very offended because I feel it's a mockery; it's demeaning," said Beaulieu, who added that she is Ojibwe from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

But Katrina Big Mountain, a Cree Indian and one of the organizers of this year's event, said she does not understand AIM's protests.

"Chasco is a wonderful event," she said. "There are Native Americans who attend it, Native Americans who participate in it, Native Americans who run it. What more do they want?"

This month, after protesting the event for seven years, AIM of Florida filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney General's office saying it will push for a $1-million lawsuit.

The complaint calls for the festival to sever all ties with the Krewe of Chasco and for whites to stop wearing Indian regalia.

Brenner said organizers, including Pasco County Commissioner Peter Altman, a Chasco Fiesta steering committee member, wear costumes to honor American Indians.

The dress is either bought from Indians, given to krewe members as gifts or made by Indians who ride the krewe's float.

"The clothes I wear were presented to me by members of the Creek association in northern Florida," Altman said.

Brenner said Chasco organizers are planning a news conference at 10 a.m. March 20 at the festival. About 100 American Indians are scheduled to attend Chasco; some will be on hand to answer questions.

AIM of Florida is requesting protection from the U.S. Department of Justice during its planned March 22 protest, citing worries about a volatile mix of people and a possible Ku Klux Klan presence at the event.

Protesters at the St. Petersburg Times office in Port Richey on Wednesday hold signs saying the newspaper and other supporters of the Chasco Fiesta are promoting racism. The festival's organizers said Chasco, which runs from March 20-30, educates people about American Indians.