For Release: Tuesday January 27, 1999
"We hope this will stimulate the Buncombe County Board of Education
to end the Indian mascots at
Erwin High School, " said Don Merzlak today in response to news that the Civil Rights Division of the
U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into possible discrimination against Indians at the
Buncombe County school. Merzlak is Elder for the Buncombe County Native American Intertribal
"On June 12, 1998 after meeting with School Board officials monthly
for nearly a year, they told us the
mascot issue was dead and that they would not apply their own Non-Discrimination Policy to this issue.
We went home that day and my wife Pat wrote a letter of complaint to the Justice Department, "
continued Merzlak who has had five children graduate from Erwin and two more in primary school. "We
had contacted the Justice Department earlier but agreed we would try to work with the School Board first.
After maintaining our composure despite racial slurs and comments from some school officials and seeing
that they had broken off negotiations, we submitted the complaint. We are really grateful the Justice
Department has responded and we hope others affected across North Carolina and the nation will send in
like complaints to the Justice Department."
Merzlak's wife, Pat, added that she hopes "it will mean that my younger
children will not have to
go through what the older ones did from stereotypes and comments. It will also mean that non-Indian
children will be freed from basing their ideas about Indians and Indian culture on violent and derogatory
stereotypes of Indian mascots."
The Intertribal Association points to support for change from many churches,
individuals, and from 95% of the Erwin faculty, from Governor Jim Hunt, from the N.C. Commission of
Indian Affairs, from Tom Sobol, Chair of the County Commissioners, and from County Commissioner
and teacher in the system, Patsy Keever. "We want to thank the fair-minded people of our area who have
written and phoned School Board members in the past months. The Board will discuss this in closed
session on February 4 so now is not the time to be silent," said Pat Merzlak. She added that even the
Board Chair, the Superintendent, and the Erwin principal had told us they would like to see change, but it
just has not happened. More....
Intertribal Association leaders also raised concerns about what they
feel is the unnecessarily
confrontational tone of School Board attorney Walter Currie. "He seems to think this is a win-lose
situation and it is not. The only ones who will really win or lose are the children of our community. We
hope the Board will embrace this opportunity to set an example for the State and the nation, " said Bruce
Two Eagles also of the Intertribal Association.
Currie told the Asheville Citizen times January 26 that the School Board
might not respond to certain
Justice Department questions like the race of the Board members or the date the mascots were adopted.
"We worry that the Board's lawyer and not the elected Board itself is setting the tone on this
issue," said Two Eagles. He also noted that separate from the Justice Department investigation, the
Association has retained a Missouri lawyer who has written a letter of intent to sue the School board. "
We are not pleased with the antagonistic tone or the level of cooperation from the Board's
attorney to try to work out a resolution with our lawyer," said Two Eagles.
Two Eagles added, "They have already spent several thousand dollars
on legal fees, for what? So our
School Board will be known as the 1990s version of Lester Maddox standing in front of the school with
ax handles to stop the roll of history toward fairness for all citizens? "
"Little Black Sambo was dispensed with long ago" said Don Merzlak, "Now
it is history's moment
to do the same with 'Little Red Sambo'." He continued, "The School Board is getting ready
to ask us taxpayers for millions of dollars for a bond issue for the schools. Our kids are in those schools
but it is going to be hard to support that bond issue when they are paying their lawyer $100 an hour to
perpetuate racism with our tax money. They need to embrace change and set an example that the
community can be proud of."
Pat Merzlak added, "We believe that the Erwin faculty, students, and
the community will come through
this time with a better mascot and more school pride and more united than ever before. Erwin deserves
The School Board allowed a May 1998 vote of the Erwin student body to
determine the fate of the
mascots. Although less than half voted to keep the mascots, that 41% was more than any one of the other
options and the Board let the issue die.
Added Two Eagles, "They have a Non-Discrimination Policy that mandates
'respect for differing
cultures', but they have ignored that policy. It is ironic that just after we celebrate Dr. Martin
Luther King's birthday, the Buncombe County Board of Education is refusing to honor basic
respect for the children in our school system. We objected to voting on racism from the beginning. We
asked them over and over, 'What if the vote doesn't remove the mascots?' They
seemed confident it would and gave us the impression that whatever happened, they would do the right
thing at the end of the day. Well, the sun's going down and they still have a chance. We hope they
Other contact numbers:
Attachment to New Release January 27, 1999
Buncombe County Native American Intertribal Association
Additional local, state, and national contacts with information about
the mascot issue in Asheville, NC:
Bob Smith, A/B Community Relations Council 828-252-4713
Monroe Gilmour, Western N.C. Citizens For An End to Institutional Bigotry 828-669-6677
Wendell Begley, Chair, Buncombe Co. Board of Education 828-669-7991
Dr. Bob Bowers, Supt. Buncombe Co. Public Schools 828-255-5876
Mal Brown, Principal Clyde A. Erwin High School 828-232-4251
STATE of North Carolina
Greg Richardson, Executive Director, N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs 919-733-5998
Charlene Teters "Rosa Parks of American Indians"
Intertribal Assoc. brought Ms. Teters to Asheville in November 1998 where she spoke to over 200 at a
UNC-Asheville program. She also met with the Erwin chapter of the NCAE
Santa Fe, NM 505-988-6432 w 505-820-7874
Vernon Bellecourt American Indian Movement
Also National Coalition on Racism In Sports and the Media 612-721-3914
Joe Talougan Committee For Native American Rights (CNAR) 805-922-1158
Megan Taylor HONOR (Honor Our Neighbors Origins and Rights, Inc.) 202-546-8340
U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT:
Lawrence Baca Senior Trial Attorney, Educational Opportunities Section
U.S. Justice Department 202-514-3874