September 2,  1998
It's time to change Erwin's mascot
There seems to be a perception that "some people" are out to get rid of Erwin High School's mascots and logos.  This isn't so:  The goal is to erase discrimination, racism, and harmful stereotyping of American Indians.  Once Buncombe County residents understand the reality of the issue, change will happen.   Schools are for educating, and all children are entitled to an equal learning opportunity.

May I ask one question?  What other living race of people would allow themselves to be used as mascots?  Would we allow mascots like the Washington Blackskins, the San Francisco Chinks, or the Los Angeles Wetbacks?   Racist ideas, aren't they?   It's shameful, embarrassing, to even write the words.  Yet American Indians are dishonored by derogatory words and images, in the name of athletics  -- reduced to being mascots.

We have struggled for many months, trying to work with the Buncombe County School Board to increase understanding of the problems encountered by Indian children when their people are used as mascots.  This is not just an Erwin issue.   It touches all children in this county and indeed  in any school engaging in athletic events with Erwin.   Most importantly,  to the majority population, non-Indian children are damaged by disparaging stereotypes just as much as Indian children.

We are distributing a "Community Resolution of Respect for American Indian Culture"  throughout Buncombe County.  We ask that citizens, churches and civic organizations sign and return it for presentation to the school board later this autumn.   We need to speak in a unified voice that will be heard by school-board members.

The Buncombe County School Board has signed a policy of nondiscrimination, specifically referring to the rights of others to seek and maintain their own identities, and calling for respect for cultural differences.   In a school with an Indian mascot, Indian children have a hostile learning environment.  In spite of this policy, county schools Superintendent Dr. Bob Bowers told us,  "I was instructed in closed session not to apply that (nondiscrimination policy) in this issue."

Mascots perpetuate stereotypes.   Everyone loves to play Indian,  the Indian who vanished into history.  No one wants to deal with the Indian who is living and dishonored by being used for fun and games.

This is a nationwide issue:  More than 115 colleges and universities  -- including the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga -- have changed their Indian mascots, as have many school systems,  Dallas and Los Angeles being the best known.   With the recent National Public Radio airing of the Erwin "Squaw" issue, the publicity Buncombe County is getting is not positive.

Some have said,  "But this is a tradition!"  So were other noted traditions; slavery, segregation, public hangings, child labor...shall I go on?   The fact that a practice has existed a number of years does not mean it is a good one.

And yes, it is "just a name"  --so why not change it?  It is much more than a name to American Indians;  it is our identity and heritage that the school board is misusing.

Why didn't anyone complain before?  They did, but no one was listening at the school board.   This time, we didn't go away.   I expect that, when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, there was total amazement among many folks.   She never complained before,  they must have wondered.     Why now?  People talk when other people listen and with education, the Internet and enhanced communication, people are listening to the mascot issue.

It is long past time that Buncombe County learns there is an issue concerning Indian mascots and logos.   This is old news in other parts of the United States.

A comment by syndicated columnist Deborah Mathis, writing on race relations, calls us to action ---indeed, it makes action on this issue imperative:   "We are carriers of stereotypes, passing them from generation to generation, and only deliberate, aggressive and sometimes painful therapy can disarm this cycle.  Stereotypes we hold not only hurt others, but hurt ourselves, and if moral duty is not reason enough,  we should expel the stereotype out of self-interest.   It won't be easy, ti won't be nice."    Change can be painful, but it is still necessary.

With our resolution, we are asking the good people of Buncombe County to think about respect and how important it is for a child to have a good self-image and the oppportunity to build self-esteem.  I think no one wants to deliberately harm a child, but is can happen if we are not alert.  Please look into the eyes of Indian children:   Can you tell them that a mascot is more important than their mental health?  Good people live in Buncombe County ...good people live in the Erwin district...good people who know that discrimination can scar and cripple a child forever.

Please support and sign our Resolution of Respect, contact school-board members --and perhaps, walk in our moccasins for a mile or so.   Urge the board to honor its own nondiscrimination policy.   Join the effort to free your children and ours from the racism and stereotypes carried by the mascots and logos at Erwin.

All good people must join together and speak with a voice that the Buncombe County School Board will hear  --- and respond to with action.

Patricia Merzlak is a member of the Native American Intertribal Association.
She and her husband have lived in the Erwin district since 1964.  Five of her
children are Erwin graduates; two daughters are entering the school system now.