Text of News ReleaseUnder a banner reading, "American Indians are a living people, NOT mascots", Don Merzlak said he doesn't want his two little girls to grow up damaged psychologically by Indian mascots. Merzlak, a resident of the Erwin School District in western North Carolina's mountainous Buncombe County, is Elder for The Buncombe County Native American Intertribal Association.
At a news conference held outside the gates of the Buncombe County School Board offices on Monday August 10, the first day of school, Merzlak held up a "Resolution of Respect for American Indian Culture" that he said he hopes businesses, churches, civic organizations, government bodies, and individuals will sign to deliver to the Buncombe School Board later in the fall.
Merzlak's wife, Pat, called on the School Board to start the school year off right by living up to its Non-Discrimination Policy and eliminating the Indian mascots at Clyde A. Erwin High School outside Asheville, the school district where the Merzlaks have lived since 1964.
"The board's own policy mandates a learning environment that respects cultural differences and eliminates all vestiges of discrimination. But the School Board instructed its staff in closed session not to apply that policy to the mascot issue," she said.
The Intertribal Association held the news conference after a year of controversy in which the School Board put the issue to a vote by students at Erwin. Forty one per cent of the students voted to keep the mascots. Thirty three per cent voted for change and the remainder either voted "not concerned" or refused to vote.
According to Don Merzlak, the Intertribal Association opposed the vote, "You don't vote on racism and sexual harassment. The elected adults on the School Board should have done the right thing from the beginning but they hid behind the vote idea despite our opposition to it. Even with the vote, they didn't get half the students to support keeping the mascots. Yet they do nothing."
Bruce Two Eagles, another council member in the Intertribal Association, pointed to overwhelming support from the Erwin faculty for a change along with supportive letters from N.C. Governor Jim Hunt and from Gregory Richardson, Director of the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs. "We have tried to work with the Board for a year, meeting with their representatives almost monthly. We want to thank those school officials and students who have tried to make a difference especially the Erwin faculty and the many impressive, articulate students at the school. It is unfortunate that the Board's intransigence is allowing his issue to obscure the many good things happening at Erwin," said Two Eagles.
"Across the country, schools and universities are recognizing that American Indians are being hurt by mascot stereotypes just as African-Americans were hurt by "little black Sambo" images. The time for change is long overdue. Over 115 colleges and universities including UT(Chattanooga), Stanford, Marquette, and Miami of Ohio have eliminated Indian mascots, as have the Dallas and Los Angeles public schools," said Two Eagles.
"School Board Chair Wendell Begley and Superintendent Bowers have told us repeatedly they want to see a change, but they don't have the votes on the Board. We ask today that Board members Mike Anders, Bruce Goforth, Linda Summy, and Terry Roberson rethink their positions and do the right thing for Buncombe County American Indians and indeed for their own children," continued Two Eagles.
Erwin High School calls its male athletes "warriors" and its female athletes "squaws." There is a 25 foot tall Indian statue outside the school's entrances and "Home of the Warriors and Squaws" written in large letters across the ousted wall of the gymnasium.
Two-Eagles said that use of the term "squaw" is particularly offensive because it refers to a woman's genital area and connotes among Indians someone who is worse that a prostitute. He said that the state of Minnesota and others have taken steps to remove 'squaw' from geographic name places. "it is not about being 'politically correct', it is about showing basic human decency and respect for one's fellow citizens," he said.
Don Merzlak said that the news conference is the beginning of a three month campaign to shine a public spotlight on the School Board's inattention to its own policy. In addition to asking area organizations to support the Resolution, Merzlak said that the documentary video, "In Whose Honor" about the national mascot situation will be made available to churches and organizations interested in the subject.
Merzlak said the Intertribal Association hopes the School Board will take constructive action soon, but if not, they plan to bring the resolutions to the School Board at its November regular meeting.