by Chris Cox Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times Feb 20, 1999


Erwin Issue A Complex Maze of Ideas

On the surface, the entire brouhaha over whether or not to change the mascot at Erwin High School is silly to the point of being absurd. But when you look more closely, delving beneath the surface to the core issues underneath, you can see quite clearly that the issues are actually absurd to the point of being silly, a distinction that is perhaps subtle but nonetheless vital.

Every day, it seems, we, the innocent public are subjected to more coverage of this momentous story, which boils down to whether the Erwin high women's teams should play its games as the Squaws, Eagles, Warriors, Wolverines or Mud Hens.

Of course, I understand that you, the objective reader, are wondering the same thing I have been wondering: Who cares? If the term "squaw" is demeaning to Native Americans--and everybody but John Wayne and a handful of local white guys with dictionaries and rationalizations seems to agree that it is--then what's the big deal? Yes, yes, I know the student body voted to keep the mascot. But, come on, join me here in the real world for a moment. If every issue affecting the student body was settled by a referendum, there would be no more algebra or English, and the school year would last about three weeks.

I say this not to discredit students, many of whom are bright, articulate and quite able to parse this matter outside the influence of their parents. In fact, the most sensible commentary I have yet heard on this subject came from an Erwin High student, who said that most students really couldn't care less about this subject, but many were just parroting what their parents told them at home. That sounds about right.

It is, to be sure an interesting case of characters all grim-faced when you see them on the 11 'clock news. There are the parents and the alumni who are tired of being told that they are endorsing racism because they support "tradition"; Native Americans who are tired of being exploited and stereotyped; school board members who are tired of being caught in the middle; students who are tired of having their school year swallowed whole by a controversy not of their making; faculty who support a change and cannot seem to get noticed (whoever listens to them anyway?); and the media, who are tired of covering this story, especially when they have Eric Rudolph and the racetrack to think about.

And now, just to add a little spice, we have the Justice Department entering the mix, and the issue moves from the absurd to the sublime. People are now actually debating 'earnestly'; whether to spend thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the Justice Department over a mascot.

We all realize, of course, that no one likes to be told what to do., no one likes being accused of supporting racism, and people generally are resistant to change. But don't you find it all a bit strange and hypocritical that the people most passionately involved in maintaining the status quo seem to be a bunch of middle-aged white guys? I always become a little suspicion and a little amused when white guys resort to telling ethnic groups that they have no business being offended by slurs or degrading stereotypes. It's almost as it they are saying, "You Native Americans aren't really offended by this'  just think you are. Because who knows better than I, a middle-aged white guy in 1999, the true meaning and scope of your painful history? And who knows better than I, the budding linguist, the actually meaning of words that have nothing to do with my culture and everything to do with yours?

Bottom line: If people are forced to rely on their high school mascot for identity and sense of pride, they have serious problems. I say this, of course, as a proud graduate of Alleghany High where I once was a mighty Trojan. Think about it.