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Thursday February 1, 2001
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U.S. Justice Department settles with board of education over Erwin mascot
By Clarke Morrison, STAFF WRITER

Posted: Feb 01 at 01:30 AM

ASHEVILLE Ė The U.S. Justice Department says that the Buncombe County Board of Education has at last fulfilled its obligations stemming from the 1999 settlement that ended a controversial civil rights investigation into whether there was a "racially hostile environment" for American Indians at Erwin High School.

The department is closing its books on the matter, Helen Norton, deputy assistant attorney general, said in a Jan. 19 letter to school system officials, according to Superintendent Cliff Dodson.

"This is bringing closure to the agreement made over a year ago," he said.

The Justice Department ended its investigation shortly after the board voted in March 1999 to eliminate any reference to the girls sports teamsí mascot as "squaw." However, the school was allowed to continue using "warrior" for the mascot of the boys teams.

The mascot controversy had been going on for nearly two years, beginning with one complaint but gaining momentum as people divided into two camps, one believing the mascot names are intended to show pride, the other claiming they dishonor American Indians.

The settlement required the school board to take several actions, one of which was to permanently remove "any and all uses of American Indian religious symbols Ö which are identified as being offensive to or disrespectful of American Indian culture," with the exception of the 25-foot Indian statue in front of the school and two totem poles.

Jace Weaver, a lawyer and professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University, was then hired by the Justice Department to conduct a survey of the school in August 1999. Weaver concluded that Erwinís use of sacred imagery was pervasive and offensive. He cited various displays and murals throughout the building, as well as religious imagery in the schoolís logo.

But school board members werenít satisfied with the report.

"(Weaver) found everything offensive," board member Jim Edmonds said. "We just didnít agree with that."

Then last fall the board had Joyce Dugan, former chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, survey the building and write the Justice Department on what she saw, Dodson said.

Based on Duganís report, school officials removed the "war paint" from the image of an Indian on a mural at the school, better organized a display case containing Indian artifacts, and removed a bust depicting an American Indian, Dodson said.

The school system also pledged to continue incorporating American Indian culture into its curriculum.

"Because these steps, if fully and properly implemented by the board and school officials, will likely address the remaining issues from our March 4, 1999 letter, we are closing this matter," Norton said in her recent letter.

"Weíve worked with them to remove the items that were supposed to be offensive," Edmonds said. "We believe we have fulfilled what we were required to do."

But local opponents of imagery that stereotypes and denigrates American Indians say the school board needs to go further and end the use of the warrior mascot at Erwin. Bruce Two Eagles of the Buncombe County Intertribal Association and Monroe Gilmour of the Mascot Education and Action Group plan to air their concerns at tonightís meeting of the board.

Gilmour pointed out that the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs passed a resolution last year calling for the elimination of Indian mascots and logos from all public schools in North Carolina by June 2003. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt endorsed the resolution, pointing to "the impact such negative stereotyping has on the integrity of our public school curriculum."

"I have children in the Buncombe County school system, and I feel like they are being sent the message that stereotyping and disrespect are OK if you are in the majority," Gilmour said.

But Edmonds said he believes the matter has probably been put to rest.

"I think itís finished," he said. "I donít know if anyone else (on the board) will want to revisit it."

Contact Morrison at 232-5849 or Cmorrison@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.

 

 

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