An edited version of
this article appeared in the February 4, 2000 Asheville Citizen-Times,
Asheville, North Carolina
Note: Edited out portions are underlined in this complete version
Erwin mascot: Is Buncombe School Board serious about its anti-bullying program?
By Monroe Gilmour
By initiating a comprehensive anti-bullying program, the Buncombe County School Board is to be commended for recognizing the negative impact of school-based bullying on student victims and on overall school safety.
Yet, there is an irony here. While declaring the school system's desire to decrease bullying on the school yard, the Board's own brand of bullying continues at the top.
The characteristic behavior of a bully and the impact of bullying on student victims elucidated in your feature article (AC-T Jan 19, 2000) describe well the School Board's own behavior in resisting the elimination of Indian imagery and mascots at Clyde A. Erwin High School.
The Society of (American) Indian Psychologists meeting one year ago called for the "retiring of offensive team mascots." Dr. Dennis Tibbetts, PhD, Society member, and Director of the Center for Naive American studies at Northern Michigan University, stated, "It's distressing when Native people who are searching for their own identity or attempting to present their tribal identity as accurately as possible have to combat the dominant culture over the offensive use of our images and symbols." Why does the school board, vocally concerned about the effects of bullying, ignore such advice?
The National Indian Education Association has also called for the elimination of American Indian mascots. Former high school principal, NIEA member, and now, University of Kansas education professor, Cornel Pewewardy wrote, "The issue of the Indian mascot has affected the perceptions of both Native Americans and non-natives toward the image of Native American people, as well as leaving emotional and psychological scars in those parents and students involved in the continuous struggle of unlearning Indian stereotypes."
Yet, like the bully who is indifferent to the suffering of his/her victim, the Buncombe County School Board continues to denigrate American Indians who say today, like Rosa Parks said forty five years ago, "no more."
According to a video tape of the December school board meeting, the Board's attorney, Walter Currie appeared to dismiss the importance of the issue saying it was a "small group of dissidents" who wanted the change.
Mr. Currie also called "extremely biased" the report of Indian studies expert and Yale University professor, Dr. Jace Weaver, that concluded the Indian imagery at Erwin High School creates a "hostile environment at the school." Revealingly though, the School Board itself asked the Justice Department to find the expert, and school officials and the attorney's own assistant accompanied Dr. Weaver during his examination of Erwin's Indian imagery.
With Board efforts to deny the legitimacy of the issue and even of the Indians calling for change, the School Board has built a self-deluding fence around its own intransigence. Moreover, the Board refuses to acknowledge the broad-based sentiment for the change locally and nationally. For example, last summer the western North Carolina United Methodist Church's 1,146 churches passed a resolution asking for change. The national NAACP convention and the local Branch similarly called for eliminating such mascots. Dozens of Indian, church, education,, and civic organizations have done the same. The Board has not even addressed the substance of the curriculum, educational, moral, or psychological impacts the many resolutions for change have enunciated.
The public expression for change is, however, somewhat muted in the Erwin District itself, by what might be described as the bullying of dissent by some Erwin alumni. According to a video tape of the tense public hearing last February in the Erwin gymnasium, the president of the Erwin District Lions Club said in a firm tone that was greeted with supportive laughter, " there is small group saying you are stepping on my toes, CUT OFF YOUR FOOT." Did he realize that early Spanish explorers actually did cut off Indians' feet as a form of punishment? Through a news release issued from its national headquarters, Lions Club, International repudiated the statements and actions of the local Erwin District Club. Is the School Board unaware of its own unconstructive image in the wider community?
Meanwhile, the School Board and many Erwin alumni ignore the 90 to 3 vote of the Erwin faculty to eliminate Indian imagery in the school's mascots. They ignore decades of experience, decades of dedication to Erwin High School.
Judging from other comments at the February public hearing, some Erwin alumni see the American Indians who raised the issue as "bullies" themselves for challenging the status quo and hurting Erwin's 'heritage.' One Erwin Advisory Council member was earlier quoted in the AC-T saying the Indians should "go back home." The broader irony of that statement aside, the family raising the issue has lived in the Erwin District since 1964 and has had five children graduate from Erwin. Is this alumni lack of caring part of the "disturbing resistance to change" that former Superintendent Bob Bowers referred to in his recent interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times? (AC-T 1-17-00)
History's river of justice saw similar, though eventually unsuccessful, efforts to retard its flow in the 1960s. Georgia restaurant proprietor Lester Maddox tried to stem the river's flow and for a moment became popular enough to be elected Governor of Georgia. Maddox, who gained his popularity by standing in front of his restaurant with an axe handle to defy the desegregation of eating facilities is today discredited and a mere footnote in history.
Buncombe County students will benefit if the school Board chooses to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rather than its current Lester Maddox model. King pushed for positive change to bring people to together despite equally angry opposition, knowing that despite the shrillness of people like Maddox, there are more people of good will out there than not. Maddox, on the other hand, hung onto an unjust heritage and was swept aside by history.
The Buncombe County School Board stands at a fork in the road. By choosing to eliminate harmful stereotype mascots, the Board will choose a vision of fairness, good curriculum, and hope. To go the direction its attorney apparently prefers, the Board chooses momentary popularity with some Erwin alumni. It also chooses an in-your-face, bully-like indifference to an increasing national consensus on this issue and guarantees itself a Lester Maddox-type footnote in Buncombe County history.
In short, the choice made will be an early barometer of whether or not the Buncombe County School Board is serious about its anti-bullying program.
(Gilmour is coordinator of Western North Carolina Citizens For An End to Institutional Bigotry and may be reached at PO Box 18640 Asheville, NC 28814 or via WNCCEIB's web page, www.main.nc.us/wncceib/ )