Intertribal Association's Response to School Board's
Feb 4, 1999 Statement on the Erwin Mascot Issue

Mr. Wendell Begley, Chair                                              February 15, 1999
Buncombe County Board of Education
175 Bingham Rd.
Asheville, NC 28806

Re: Inaccuracies in your "Statement Concerning the School Mascot Issue at Clyde A. Erwin High School February 1999 " handed out at the February 4, 1999 school board meeting.

Dear Mr. Begley:

At the February 4, 1999 Buncombe County School Board meeting, you read a statement entitled "A Statement Concerning the School Mascot Issue at Clyde A. Erwin High School." A stack of several hundred copies of the statement was available and school officials handed the statement out to whoever wanted one, including the media..

We are writing to say that the statement you read and handed out is full of inaccuracies. We request that you withdraw the statement OR reissue the statement with corrections. We regret that despite your personal statements to us that you do not want the Board to be confrontational in resolving this matter, the letters of the Board's attorney and this statement do not give that impression. We hope that the inaccuracies are the result of the statement being written by someone who had little direct contact
with the process. Whatever the reason, the statement as it is written appears to us to be designed to gloss over the truth of the Board's ultimate indifference and inadequate action in responding to the complaints we raised about the American Indian mascots and the resulting unhealthy educational atmosphere created for our children, for other Indian children, and for non-Indian children in the Buncombe County Public Schools.

Let us share some, but not all, of the examples where we think your statement poorly reflects the sequence of events and the facts related to this issue:

Inaccuracy:    The statement opens: "In the Spring of 1997, a single individual complained to the Superintendent of the Buncombe County Public Schools..."

As we mutually agreed with you during our almost-monthly meetings during the 1997-98 school year, the first contact came in November 1996 when Bruce Two Eagles spoke over the phone with then-Superintendent Frank Yeager and Don Merzlak spoke to Director of Student Services Frank Lewis. Bruce was no "single individual" but speaking on behalf of the Buncombe County Native American Intertribal Association. Dr. Yeager, in fact, indicated that the mascot could be changed by the following September. In May, 1997, he called back to say that he wouldn't be able to make the change because there was too much opposition. At our first meeting with school officials on July 14, 1997, our organization was joined by several other area non-profits to voice complaint.

Inaccuracy: The statement refers to "additional individual protests" as if this occurred after the "Spring of 1997."

The statement fails to record the letter dated January 7, 1997 from Chief Joyce Dugan of the Eastern Band of Cherokee alerting the Erwin High School principal to the inappropriateness of the "squaw" designation for female athletes. The statement also fails to acknowledge the Intertribal Association as being involved from the beginning.

Inaccuracy: The statement claims that a "curriculum was developed that focused on cultural diversity and sensitivity awareness.  Speakers and knowledgeable guests were invited to the school to work directly with students."

This statement gives the impression that the "curriculum" was for the entire school population when in fact except for the two or 3-hour video/essay exercise in April 1998, all of the activities were limited to relatively small groups of students.

Moreover, we, who were most concerned and most knowledgeable about the rationale for objections to the mascot, were not allowed to participate or meet with students. At one meeting, the Superintendent told us he wouldn't allow us to "inflame" the situation. We think the school system simply did not want the issue presented in its fullness. We felt the school system was more interested in controlling the situation than in educating the students or their parents. In fact, while the most vocal opposition was
from parents, no formal efforts were made to educate them about the rationale for our complaint and no efforts were made by the schools to bring us together with them. Every effort was half-hearted and, while some aspects of the education process were indeed useful and did change minds, the impression of a total school effort is a misrepresentation of what transpired during the 1997-98 school year. We are doubly disappointed that the award -wing educational video we provided to the school system, "In Whose
Honor?," has never been shown to the student body and that in November 1998 (National Native American History Month) when national American Indian leader Charlene Teters, the subject of the video, visited Asheville, she was not allowed to speak with the students at Erwin High School. (The teachers did invite her to meet with them and she did so after school in a very good meeting which was marred at its conclusion when students put up a large banner reading "Scalp 'Em" at a spot where we and Ms. Teters would be leaving the school.)

Inaccuracy:  "A video presentation was even created to inform citizens and students alike about the issue involved in the controversy."

We are unaware of any use of the video to communicate with "citizens." In fact, throughout the process, we agreed not to make the issue a public one and after meeting with you even withdrew our early request to be on the agenda of the August 1997 Board meeting in order to lessen the volatile atmosphere created by some members of the Erwin community.

Neither the Board nor the school did anything we are aware of to provide an opportunity for "citizens" to learn about the substantive educational aspects of this issue. Moreover, only by our insistence did the video add one of our statements to contradict the parent's perspective that this issue had been raised by "outsiders." We point out that we (Don & Pat Merzlak) lived in the Erwin District since 1964 and have had five children graduate from Erwin, and two more coming through the system.

Inaccuracy: The statement says, "The local newspaper published an editorial stating that the students should be allowed to decide whether or not to keep the mascot."

While accurate on one level, this statement omits the fact that the local newspaper (The Asheville Citizen-Times) had a lead editorial on August 14, 1998 entitled: "School board participating in national disgrace." The editorial stated: "To knowingly use offensive language and symbols is not just insensitive, it's backward. The Buncombe County School Board should halt this actionable practice of discrimination now." A lead editorial on January 29, 1999 stated that "The only responsible course it (the board) can take is to act immediately to change the names." In the most recent lead editorial on February 5, 1999, the day after the Board's statement was read, the editorial entitled "School board must rise to the occasion on volatile issue," called on the board to "make the decision it can make, the decision it should have made in the first place." In short, the statement you read leaves the impression that the local newspaper supports the Board when in fact, it has all along called on the Board to implement change and has severely criticized the Board for not acting expeditiously on a matter of clear discrimination.

Inaccuracy: The statement says "It appeared that the majority of community members willing to express an opinion did not see anything discriminatory about the use of the term squaw."

This fails to point out that on May 8, 1998, the Erwin High School principal wrote to the Superintendent informing him that "the overwhelming majority of the faculty of Clyde An Erwin High School supports the removal of all Native American references from sports teams' names and mascots. As a matter of fact, there were less than five faculty members in favor of retaining the present mascot." This result is from a faculty of around 95. Moreover, there were many letters to the editor calling for change and the Board has heard from many organizations and individuals asking for change.

Inaccuracy: The statement says, "The Board decided to put closure on the issue in May 1998 when the student body was given the opportunity to vote on eliminating or retaining the mascot. A clear majority of students voted to retain the mascot."

The options given the students were not simply "eliminating or retaining" the mascot nor did "a clear majority of students" vote to retain the mascot. The students were given five options, one of which was "to keep the names warrior and squaw." Three options were for various types of changes. One option was for "unconcerned."   When the three change options and unconcerned options are added together, they total 464 votes compared to the 414 votes to retain the names. Another 40 students refused to vote and 90 students were absent. There was no "clear majority" unless, as the School Board self-servingly decided to do, one compared the "keep" vote to each "change" vote individually. We think the real message was that the "keep" vote was less than half the total vote and only 41% of the
total student body. (We would also point out that it was reported to us that in the autumn of 1998 the student council at Erwin voted to ask the Board of Education to revisit the issue but were dissuaded by school officials from doing so in light of the then-upcoming November school board election.)

Omission: The statement completely omits the Intertribal Association's objection to having the students vote on the issue.

From the moment school officials mentioned the possibility of a vote, we objected because as we said in many of our monthly meetings with you and school officials, one does not vote on racism and sexual harassment issues. We also stated repeatedly that because the issue is one of implementing a stated school (non-discrimination) policy, it is not a majority-rules situation anymore than letting the students vote on whether to bring weapons to school. We also pointed out that it was an adult decision not a student decision and pointed to colleges and schools systems where the Administrations had made the decision to eliminate the Indian mascots then gave the students the choice of a new mascot that was not offensive (Miami of Ohio in 1997-98 for example).

Finally, we repeatedly asked what the Board would do if the students voted to keep the mascots and the Board had to overrule them. We warned that letting the students vote then overruling them would undermine and patronize the students. We also emphasized repeatedly in our meetings with you that in the end the Board would have to overrule a student vote to keep the mascots because it is an individual, civil rights issue not a simple matter of opinion. Interestingly, the faculty at Erwin was under the impression that the vote was only to be a guideline and in the May 7, 1998 Asheville Citizen-Times (the day before the vote), a top school official was quoted saying that the vote will be a "recommendation" to the School Board. The fact that the one of the vote options was to eliminate "warriors" too indicates that that possibility was already on the table. (We always said that the word "warrior" was not the
problem, only the association of that word with Indian motifs and logos.)

Inaccuracy: The statement says that after the vote "those who opposed the use of the term squaw not only continued to voice their opinion but expanded the issue to include the use of a warrior mascot."

The question of expanding the concern to the entire mascot was brought up several times in meetings prior to the May 8, 1998 vote with the most direct being in the March 1998 meeting when the Executive Director of the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs and an Assistant State Superintendent of Schools, both American Indians, attended the meetings and expressed their concerns. The Commission official recounted how distasteful the statue of the Indian outside the school was to him when he drove to the school prior to our meeting at the central office.

Inaccuracy: The statement says, "The Buncombe County Board of Education has adopted and supports a policy of non-discrimination:"

While the Board has adopted a non-discrimination policy, its claim of supporting it is not accurate judging from its inaction to complaints from us. In fact, the Superintendent told us in a June 12, 1998 meeting with school attorneys and other officials present that "I have been instructed in closed session not to apply that (non-discrimination) policy to this issue." It appears to us that the Board of Education is consciously and intentionally NOT supporting its own non-discrimination policy, one that mandates staff to "maintain an atmosphere" that, among other things, includes "respect for cultural differences" and "respect for the rights of others to seek and maintain their own identities." Even in August 1998, when one of us (Pat Merzlak) wrote to Supt. Bowers asking that an investigation of her specific complaint be undertaken as per the non-discrimination policy, he responded that the Board "will continue to allow the use of the warrior mascot until students at Erwin High School vote to change it."

The school system never has truly investigated whether there is any harm to American Indian students and, indeed, non-Indian students through the violent and derogatory stereotyping of Indians with Erwin's mascots. This lack of investigation, called for in the non-discrimination policy, occurred despite our providing the Board with numerous articles from Indian organizations, psychologists, and educators pointing to that detrimental impact.

Inaccuracy: The statement says that the "issue has grown to the point that the entire student body, faculty, and community are polarized.."

To the extent this is true, it is due to the actions of the board in not changing the names and in giving students and the community the impression this is a popular opinion type issue. Moreover, it is not accurate to say the faculty is polarized. As mentioned earlier, the Principal wrote a letter May 8, 1998 on the day of the student vote reporting that an "overwhelming majority" of the faculty wants to eliminate all references to American Indians. That fact was reiterated on February 4, 1999 by an
Erwin teacher who read a resolution signed by 44 faculty. He indicated that there was little disagreement among the faculty and that those who didn't sign were not saying they wanted to keep the mascots but that they had a variety of reasons for not signing including not being tenured and not wanting to undermine the student vote. He also noted the frustration of the faculty in not being more a part of the decision process. He also noted that the faculty was told at the time of the vote that it would not be binding but only a guideline.

Inaccuracy: The statement says, "The Board has continued to be receptive to the exchange of ideas and opinions."

On June 12, 1998, school officials including Board members told us that there was no need to continue meeting as the vote settled the issue. One Board member, Mike Anders, even yelled out at the meeting "I'm sick of this sh*t." (At an earlier meeting he had said, "Look, if you are going to sue, let's get on with it." (We would add that you told us and the media at times that you personally didn't think the Board should defend a lawsuit. In fact, you and school officials urged us to find federal examples that could be used to defend making the change.) Later in the summer when we asked the Board to re-visit the question, we were told the Board would only take up the issue again if the students requested them to do so. No additional educational activities or planning were undertaken and we were told the mascots at Erwin High School were a dead issue. When we told you that we felt obligated to our children and to what is right on the issue and that the national attention to the school system would likely be unfavorable, we and our supporters were told by you and Dr. Bowers to do what we had to do.

Conclusion: There are many other claims and nuances of the Board's statement that are inaccurate or leave the reader with a false impression. Our conclusion is that the Board's statement is an effort to paint picture favorable to the Board's handling of this complaint when its handling has been inadequate to address the complaint. We feel that overall, even the actions the Board has taken have been half-hearted and have refused to acknowledge publicly the harm being done to Indian children and to non-Indian children alike through the perpetuation of violent and/or derogatory American Indian stereotypes. We think the record should show that the Board acted in a way that resulted in a discriminatory environment being perpetuated at Erwin High School and the entire Buncombe County school system. We request that you withdraw the statement OR make changes to correct the record. We will be happy to work with you in that process as we did during our monthly meeting discussions on the mascot issue time-line.

Thank you.


Don Merzlak Pat Merzlak Bruce Two Eagles

cc: School Board members Buncombe County Commissioners

State Superintendent of Schools Governor Jim Hunt

Greg Richardson, Executive Director, NC Comm. Of Indian Affairs

Lawrence Baca, U.S. Justice Department Deborah Van Arink, attorney