Philadelphia Inquirer - March 6, 1999
That was the unanimous decision of a North Carolina
school board whose high
school has been the subject of a federal inquiry into whether its use of Indian names
and mascots violated the civil rights of American Indian students.
The Justice Department confirmed yesterday that it
ended its inquiry shortly after
the Thursday night vote by the Buncombe County Board of Education. The board
voted to retain the nickname used by the Erwin High School boys' athletic teams,
but to discard the girls' team name, beginning with the next school year. Students at
the Asheville school will decide what to call the girls' teams.
A fake totem pole will remain outside the school, along
with a giant plaster Indian
who stands clutching a tomahawk. Certain Indian religious symbols such as eagle
feathers will be removed from inside the school.
``It's a partial victory,'' said Pat Merzlak, a retired
nurse and mother of five Erwin
graduates whose complaint sparked the investigation. ``It certainly validates our
definition of the word squaw.''
In some Indian languages, squaw means prostitute; in
others, it is a vulgar term for
Merzlak and her husband, Don, who said he is of Blackfoot
heritage, said their two
youngest sons had been teased and mocked because of their background.
The Justice Department had sought to determine whether
a ``hostile racial
environment'' existed at the 1,060-student school, which is less than 1 percent
Indian. The department said that its inquiry found no previous complaints about the
mascots and that the school district had taken actions during the last 18 months that
included removing Squaws from team uniforms and the gymnasium floor.
``In view of all the circumstances, we are closing
our preliminary inquiry . . . and
will take no further action,'' the department said in a letter to school officials. It will
have no further comment, Justice Department spokeswoman Christine DiBartolo
Efforts to contact school board president Wendell Begley
The board's ballot capped an angry debate over culture
and meaning that has
echoed similar battles at schools and colleges across the country.
Most people in the small city in the mountains of western
North Carolina supported
keeping the Indian motif, saying it honored the strength and courage of Native
Americans. They blamed liberal troublemakers and an overreaching federal
government for the dispute.
Indian activists had hoped the federal inquiry could
lead to a landmark ruling, one
that would hasten the end of what they view as offensive racial stereotypes.
Activists said yesterday that they were disappointed but not surprised by the school
``The folks down there aren't that far removed from
Neanderthal man,'' said
Vernon Bellecourt, a prominent Indian organizer and head of the National Coalition
Against Racism in Sports and Media. ``They're living in the dark ages. That today
they would still want to expropriate our history and our symbols . . .''
More than 100 American colleges and universities, including
Dartmouth, have dropped Indian nicknames in recent years, as have hundreds of
high schools. Officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, scene of a similar
debate, said this week that they were keeping the name ``Indians'' but adopting a
black bear as a new mascot. Professional teams such as baseball's Cleveland
Indians and football's Washington Redskins have refused to change their names.
The controversy in Asheville began two years ago, when
the Buncombe County
Native American Intertribal Association complained to school officials about the
team names. Some residents said in phone interviews yesterday that the school
board's decision would not settle the issue.
``I don't think it's over any more than civil rights
was over in Montgomery,'' said
Monroe Gilmour, head of the Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to
Institutional Bigotry, which opposes the use of Indian mascots. ``It took a yearlong
bus boycott, which we now look back on and say, `Of course, African Americans
should be able to sit anywhere they want on the bus.' But at the time, it was a
He said he hoped the Justice Department would investigate
similar cases around
the country. ``It is still a major issue for American Indians,'' Gilmour said.