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It's time for action on symbolism at Erwin High

Sometimes cultural ironies are subtle and hard to detect. Other times they reach up and slap you in the face.

It takes no great perceptiveness to find the irony in the Buncombe County School System's recent dealings with the issue of earth-based religions in the schools. On the one hand you have Ginger Strivelli. The fact that Strivelli practices a pagan religion became general knowledge when she was quoted in a story about a mayor's proclamation recognizing earth-based religions. Shortly thereafter, Strivelli was prevented from helping with her 5-year-old daughter's "fall social." North Buncombe Elementary Principal Margaret Edwards decided to ban all parents from volunteering at the school on the last day before Halloween rather than risk disruptions by parents who, because of Strivelli's religious beliefs, want her prohibited from participating in her three children's classroom activities.

On the other hand you have the Buncombe County Intertribal Association, which has been trying since 1997 to get Clyde A. Erwin High School to stop using American Indians as mascots and to remove symbols sacred to them. Last March, after the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and threatened to pull the whole system's federal funding, the school agreed to remove "any and all uses of American Indian religious symbols, including those that may be part of any display or depiction which are identified as being offensive to or disrespectful of American Indian culture...."

The agreement called for the chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to tour the school to identify what items would be considered disrespectful. But a new Cherokee chief was elected this summer and apparently no time could be worked out for the walk-through. The Justice Department recommended Dr. Jace Weaver, an American Indian, a lawyer and a Yale associate professor in American and religious studies. Weaver found American Indian symbols and imagery pervasive throughout the school.

"The theme 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 wrote in his report, which is printed in full on the opposite page. The report is dated Aug. 30 and was forwarded to the Board of Education Oct. 7.

That's pretty clear and unequivocal. Yet, more than six weeks later, Superintendent Bob Bowers says, "We haven't identified exactly what is going to be done." Bowers said the Board of Education might consider having another review of the imagery and he couldn't give a time frame for when the sacred symbols would be removed.

The system couldn't act fast enough to ban volunteers from North Buncombe for a day to keep out a parent-volunteer when some other parents objected to her religious beliefs. Said Supt. Bowers: "I ... think it's a good stand whenever there's an issue that's so controversial as to disrupt the school day."

But the school system turned a deaf ear for months as the Buncombe County Intertribal Association objected to the disrespectful misappropriation of symbols sacred to American Indians. Only the threat of having their federal funding pulled forced the Board of Education to agree to remove the symbols, and now they appear to be looking for a way to avoid complying with that agreement.

And if disruption is such a big problem, why hasn't the fact that this issue has been a major disruption at Erwin for more than a year now caused anybody in the superintendent's office any concern.

If some parents are so worried about the potential influence of a pagan parent, where is their outrage at the pervasiveness of the symbolism of another earth-based religion at Erwin.

Ironies aside, the real issue is this: Erwin is using religious icons in a secular, highly disrespectful way.

It's long past time for the school board to follow its own non-discrimination policy and insist that the school remove all American Indian symbolism from its premises, its printed material and its activities. That which isn't objectionable from a religious standpoint is objectionable because of its stereotypical nature. Weaver's report makes clear how demeaning it is to appropriate icons from another culture to be used in the raucous, rah-rah, totally secular way school mascots are used. For Erwin to continue to do so is indefensible.


Copyright 1999 Asheville Citizen-Times.
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To read Dr. Jace Weaver's report click here
      Yale University Professor examines sacred American Indian imagery used offensively at Erwin High School