N.C. Mascot Education & Action Group (NCMEAG)

PO Box 18640, Asheville, North Carolina 28814

828-669-6677 fax: 828-669-8862 wncceib@buncombe.main.nc.us


"Educators Can't Ignore American Indian Sport Mascots"

Statement of Monroe Gilmour

Guilford County Board of Education, January 13, 2004 Greensboro, NC

Good evening. My name is Monroe Gilmour. I am coordinator of the North Carolina Mascot Education and Action Group(NCMEAG) based in Asheville. Thank you and Dr. Grier for inviting me to share tonight my perspective and experience on the question of the North Carolina public schools' use of American Indian sport mascots.

I commend each of you and the Guilford County Schools for taking a serious look at this issue. I know that you have already read much and discussed much about "Indian" sport mascots. I hope my comments will add an additional viewpoint to your inquiry.

I am not standing here alone. I bring greetings from Mr. Greg Richardson, Executive Director of the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs and from Dr. Louise Maynor, Chair of the N.C. Advisory Council on Indian Education, a body set up to advise the State Board of Education. Both of those organizations have issued Resolutions on this issue, copies which you have seen. Both Mr. Richardson and Dr. Maynor asked me to convey to you their offers to assist you in any way as you examine this question. Also, Mr. Rick Oxendine, Executive Director of the Guilford Native American Association told me yesterday his organization, on behalf of the American Indian students enrolled in the Guilford County Schools, supports these efforts and is available to meet with you at any time.

"Educators Can't Ignore American Indian Sport Mascots." This title for my comments is taken from an article by Dr. Cornel Pewewardy of the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Pewewardy, who, as a student many years ago, was the National Indian Student of the Year and more recently the National Indian Educator of the Year, has worked for 30 years to persuade educators throughout our nation to recognize the importance of this issue for American Indian students and for non-Indian students alike. He was here in Greensboro recently at the November national convention of the National Indian Education Association and spoke eloquently on this topic in a workshop. He stressed that this is a curriculum issue, one that, as he put it, "affects the minds of our children." And there are many children. As you know North Carolina has about 100,000 American Indians, the most of any state on the east coast, 18,000 of whom are students in the N.C. public schools.

I am not an American Indian. But, like most of us, I grew up watching Westerns on TV and at the movies, rooting for or against the Washington Redskins, and playing cowboys and Indians with enthusiasm. The pervasive imagery of American Indians, much of which we now recognize as stereotypes, has been and is part of every American's cultural woodwork. I never gave it much of a thought as being harmful to or unappreciated by American Indians.

In 1997, my eyes were opened by getting to know Don and Pat Merzlak in Asheville. Don is Elder of the local Intertribal Association, and he and Pat are the parents of seven children, five of whom were graduates of a high school in Asheville with an Indian mascot. Don could not join us here tonight but asked me to give you his greetings and the Intertribal Association's offer to help anyway they can. He and Pat didn't like but accepted the "Indian" mascot for many years, even while trying to raise their children in an Indian cultural and spiritual environment. But they started seeing the impact on their children. One high-school-age son told them he refused to go to pep rallies because he saw their culture trivialized; another son, who had agreed to dress in costume and ride a horse after touchdowns, quit, realizing that he was becoming nothing more than a mascot himself; their younger girls, still in elementary school, had kids on the playground do 'war whoops' around them all the while taunting them saying they didn't look like the "real" Indians depicted in the high school's mascot.

Don and Pat also recommended several books, among them, Playing Indian, by Philip Deloria of the University of Colorado. He traces the fascinating (and, one has to conclude, somewhat pathological) way our nation has "played Indian" from the Boston Tea Party, where some of the men disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, to the present. I commend the book to you.

Several years ago, we had quite a controversy about Indian mascots in Buncombe County, as a result of the Merzlak family filing a complaint with the US Justice Department. That is a long story I won't go into tonight, except to read an excerpt from a letter to schools officials from then-Principal Chief Joyce Dugan of the Eastern Band Cherokee Nation. In drawing attention to the mascot, she wrote in a letter to the Principal of the high school:

"I personally feel this symbol is detrimental to young people in an educational setting where the images they become accustomed to remain with them throughout their lives. As a former educator, I have witnessed, with great sadness, the images our young people must contend with while searching for their identity. The use of these types of mascots has never before become an issue because our own community has learned to accept them rather than create further conflict and division between our community and the non-Indian world."

"The use of these types of mascots has never become an issue because our own community learned to accept them rather than create further conflict and division between our community and the non-Indian world." For me, that statement hurts and it represents a challenge. Do I use my majority status and majority power to appropriate Indian culture, traditions, and spirituality for my own purposes or do I listen to the recommendation that American Indians are today expressing openly with more insistence?

Albeit in fits and starts and often with strife, our nation does have a history and tradition of moving in the direction of respect and fairness. Consider black-face minstrel imagery and Sambo's restaurants. They were not outlawed as such, but society and the market came to realize that disrespect and stereotypes like those have no place in American culture. "Indian" mascots, even the so-called dignified, honorable ones, are the modern day equivalents of those images.

The fact that, in 2002, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for all non-Indian schools in the nation to retire their "Indian" mascots, speaks to a change that is coming and, indeed, already here. Dr. Fred Standley, English Professor and longstanding member of Florida State University's Athletic Board said in an Orlando Sentinel interview: "We are going to lose this issue, it's only a matter of time."

His plea, like mine tonight, is "Are we going to resist or are we going listen to what American Indians are recommending and take a leadership role in bringing about positive change?; Are we going to recognize that in 2004 American Indians are telling us that there is no 'honorable' way to use Indians as school logos and mascots whatever our positive intentions, mascot pride, or deeply-held school traditions may be?"

At our level, we are not dealing with pro sports or even college athletics. We are dealing with something far more important: primary, elementary, middle, and high school curriculum. The Buncombe County Public Schools defines 'curriculum' on its web site as "everything that happens to and for a student beginning at the school house door." Do we not, then, need to be intentional about what is included in that curriculum and what we are teaching our children? These children must grow up and work productively in an increasingly diverse society?

Are we going to teach, through indifference to that curriculum, that it is OK to stereotype Indians as violent? Are we going to teach that it is OK to trivialize Indian spiritual items like the feather, the drum, and the paint? Are we going to create a mishmash of Indian dress and traditions to suit our games while ignoring in our curriculum modern-day Indian sovereignty, health, education, and treaty rights issues?

Or are we going to teach that at times in society's evolution, we need to stop, step back, and reassess the traditions we have cultivated and, then, be big enough to make changes that benefit the whole?

American Indians, as an ethnic group, have the highest dropout rate in the North Carolina public schools. Improvement is happening and, as State Superintendent Mike Ward has written, "it is imperative that we encourage American Indian students to be successful in school and that we make sure that schools are inviting places for American Indians students."

His admonition applies whether or not a school even has Indian students. With inter-conference games and the state playoff system, the 40 some-odd schools with Indian mascots (only about 15 of which are high schools) touch every corner of the state. In November, a Guilford County high school came to my small community of Black Mountain and the cheer "Attack, Indians, Attack!" was heard by our students too, some of whom are American Indians. (I believe you have copies of the questions I sent to the Principal about 'honoring Indians' which that experience stimulated.)

For the same curriculum goal Superintendent Ward specifies, the Commission of Indian Affairs and the Advisory Council on Indian Education issued their Resolutions. For that same curriculum goal, the State Board of Education, in 2002, called on all schools in the state to educate themselves, to reassess their use of Indian mascots, and to report their activities annually for inclusion in the Advisory Council's annual report. Guilford County Schools is participating in that reporting process.

Allow me, here, to insert two cautions should you choose to retire "Indian" mascots. You may face accusations of doing it "just to be politically correct." I urge you not to be distracted by that red herring. My experience is that the "just politically correct" assertion is leveled to avoid dealing with the significant educational substance of this issue. How can the legitimate voices of American Indian organizations, such as those I've named, be dismissed out of hand with the condescending label 'politically correct?' How can anyone who claims to be 'honoring' Indians not then listen to those American Indian voices and take them seriously?

The second caution is to recognize that American Indians, like all other groups in our country, are not lock-step and monolithic in thinking. You may well come upon an American Indian who will tell you that it is OK to use "Indian" mascots. I urge you to think beyond such individuals to the critical mass of American Indian organizations and Tribes that are calling for change. These organizations represent the vast majority of American Indians. In addition to those already named, the list includes the National Congress of American Indians, the national Governors' Interstate Indian Council, the Society of Indian Psychologists, the National Indian Education Association, and many, many other Tribes and organizations, a list of which I can provide you.

Let me conclude by sharing with you Chief Dugan's conclusion in that letter I mentioned earlier:

"I hope we might come together on this point and work to resolving some of the prejudices within our control. (Emphasis: WITHIN OUR CONTROL, it is a complex world out there, but this one is "within our control" to change. She continues:) I believe this world is changed by a few honorable, committed people who seek to resolve, at least in one corner of the world, differences which separate their communities. Please consider my feelings as you ponder the future of your school and the youth in your care. What may seem insignificant to many will characterize the future in ways we only now are understanding."

Hundreds of public schools across the nation, including the Dallas Public Schools and the Los Angeles Public Schools have listened and have retired their "Indian" mascots. Here in North Carolina, over twenty percent of our public schools with "Indian" mascots have also listened and acted, one of them is right here in the Guilford County Schools. I leave you tonight with the request that the Guilford County Schools be an even greater part of this important curriculum change; that the Guilford County Schools be a leader, along with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in providing a living example for the young people who follow us. This issue is really one about good education and simple courtesy.

Thank you and I'll be glad to respond to any questions. Also, you will find copies of the Resolutions and documents I mentioned on our web site the address of which is given on our letterhead.

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