Report concludes Erwin High imagery is offensive
By Clarke Morrison, STAFF WRITER
LEICESTER - Erwin High School's pervasive use of sacred imagery is offensive to American Indians, according to a report by a Yale University expert who surveyed the school.
And an agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and the Buncombe County Board of Education reached in March to remove offensive imagery before the start of the school year still has not been carried out.
The pact, in which the department agreed to drop its controversial civil rights investigation into whether there was a "racially hostile environment" at Erwin, also called for the school to stop using the word "Squaws" to refer to its female sports teams. However, the school was allowed to retain "Warriors" for its male teams.
The school later opted to replace Squaws with "Lady Warriors."
But the agreement also required the school to permanently remove "any and all uses of American Indian religious symbols... which are identified as being offensive to or disrespectful of American Indian culture" with the exception of the 25-foot Indian statue and two totem poles.
The Justice Department selected Jace Weaver, who is an American Indian, lawyer and professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. Weaver conducted his survey on Aug. 19.
"I must observe that Native American imagery and symbols are pervasive throughout the school. This experience begins even in the initial moments of a visit," Weaver said in his report, referring to the statue and a totem pole. "The theme is continued throughout the building, and I believe that the overall cumulative effect, aside from any specific object or image, would be perceived as extremely hostile by Native American persons."
Weaver went on to cite various displays and murals throughout the building as offensive, as well as religious imagery in the school's logo that adorns the Erwin letterhead.
"We had tried to tell (school officials) all along that these symbols were religious symbols and had spiritual meanings that don't belong at a football game or in a public school," said Pat Merzlak, an Erwin parent who filed the original complaint in June 1998 that brought in the Justice Department.
But Erwin District resident Isaac Welch, a full-blooded Cherokee, told school board members at a meeting at the school Thursday night that he doesn't view the imagery as offensive.
"It's the intent behind the symbols," he said. "There's no intent to denigrate.
"That guy (Weaver) came in here with a loaded gun looking for something to shoot."
Superintendent Bob Bowers said the school system intends to comply with the directive to remove offensive symbols from Erwin High, but needs more time. However, he said the Board of Education might consider having another review of the imagery at the school performed.
"We haven't identified exactly what is going to be done," Bowers said. "The next step is for us to consult with our attorneys in terms of how to go about meeting the intent of the agreement."
He said he couldn't give a time frame.
Bruce Two Eagles of the Buncombe County Intertribal Association said it's time for the board to live up to the agreement it agreed to.
"Each time an agreement has been made with the school and we think they are going to stand up and be accountable, they look for another option," he said. "Broken treaties need to stop being made."
Call Clarke Morrison at 232-5849 or e-mail at CMorrison@CITIZEN-TIMES.com