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November 13, 2001
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News Article
Open Discussion Centers On Use Of American Indians As Mascots
By: By BILL JONES/Staff Writer
Source: The Greeneville Sun

Approximately 100 people packed into a conference room at Tusculum College on Tuesday evening to learn more about Native American objections to the use of American Indian mascots by school sports teams.

Sponsored by the Tusculum College Division of Humanities and the American Indian Intertribal Association, the program included both a 35-minute film produced by Wisconsin high school students and a panel discussion.

As the 7 p.m. meeting opened, master of ceremonies Elizabeth Gordon, of Tusculum College, told the audience that more than 600 schools have eliminated the use of American Indian mascots.

But material distributed at the meeting by the Asheville, N.C.-based Mascot Education & Action Group noted that about 2,500 U.S. schools continue to use American Indian mascots.

In Tennessee, according to the Mascot Education & Action Group, 114 schools (including 62 elementary schools, 22 middle schools and 30 high schools) currently use American Indian mascots.

In Greene County, DeBusk Elementary (Braves), Glenwood Elementary (Chiefs) and Mosheim Elementary (Indians) currently use American Indian mascots.

Student-Produced Film Shown

Titled “Images of Honor: Remnants of Racism in Our Schools,” the film was produced by students at Hortonville (Wis.) High School as an Advanced Placement (AP) government class project, according to its trailer.

The film combines photos of sports-team logos featuring American Indian images (many in caricature form) with interviews of proponents and opponents of using American Indian imagery as part of sports team logos and mascots.

Some interviews were with Wisconsin high school students, teachers and administrators from schools whose sports teams use American Indian images as logos and mascots. Other interviews were with Native Americans who object to that practice.

In most cases, the students interviewed didn’t seem to know why their schools used American Indian imagery. Others said they felt the practice “honored” American Indians. Some students cited the use of American Indian images by their schools as a matter of “tradition.” And most said they were unaware that Native Americans were offended by inaccurate, war-like depictions of American Indians.

A Native American student interviewed for the film, however, said negative stereotypes caused, at least in part, by depictions of American Indians in sports-team logos made life difficult for her at school.

The Native American student said a fellow student had refused to believe that she was an American Indian, telling her that American Indians were “extinct.” Citizens Participate

Following presentation of the film, students, teachers and other audience members posed questions to a panel of speakers who included Native Americans Don Merzlak, a Mosheim resident, and Christin Dingus, also a Greene County resident. Merzlak and his wife, Pat, have two daughters at Mosheim Elementary School, where the sports teams are known as the Indians.

Merzlak said it has been confusing to his children to learn about their Indian heritage at home, then go to school to see Indian-related images used in a different manner. Pat Merzlak said during the meeting that she and her husband have met with Dr. Joe Parkins, director of Greene County Schools, and have addressed the Greene County Board of Education on the issue of American Indian mascots.

She noted that some changes have been made, including the removal of weapons and other Native American depictions from school World Wide Web sites.

Other members of the panel included Anna Lee, a student at Erwin High School in Asheville, N.C.; David Voyles, an Asheville teacher and member of N.C. Educators for the Elimination of Racist Mascots; Bruce Two Eagles, of the Buncombe County (N.C.) Native American Intertribal Association; and Monroe Gilmour, who described himself as a Western North Carolina community organizer.

Voyles, a teacher in an Asheville high school that has an Indian mascot, said, “What is tragic is to see an American Indian in a school that has an Indian mascot embrace that mascot to be cool, even though that mascot does not represent the true heritage of the Indians.”

Voyles and the other panelists agreed that education is important in helping people to understand the issue.

Noting that “awareness must begin at home,” Bruce Two Eagles pointed out that education must begin in the home. Two Eagles said children learn stereotypes of Indians as savages from cartoons and movies, often before they enter school, and the team mascots can reinforce those stereotypes.

He also told the audience that few Americans know much Native American history. “How many of you graduated from high school?” he asked. When almost everyone in the room raised his/her hand, he asked, “You all studied American history, didn’t you? How many of you can name five great Indian Leaders?”

When no hands were raised in response, Two Eagles noted that no one knew the answer because everyone present had studied only “European American” history. At another point, Two Eagles asked how many survivors there were of Custer’s Last Stand. “We had a lot,” he said, pointing out that Native Americans have a different perspective on American history.

But Two Eagles also noted that the arrival of Europeans in North America had led to a dramatic decline in the Native American population during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, Two Eagles said, there were an estimated 20.5 million Native Americans in North America. By the end of 1890, he noted, there were only 250,000 American Indians left in North America.

He also noted that it actually costs school districts very little to abandon the use of Native American mascots. “When you order new uniforms, just don’t have that (Native American) logo put on them,” he said. You don’t have to do it overnight.”

“Our history is not your history,” Don Merzlak told the largely non-Native American audience at another point during the discussion.

Monroe Gilmour told the audience that Merzlak, while living in the Asheville, N.C., area, had come face-to-face with how children’s perceptions of American Indians are negatively affected by movies, television and other media.

While waiting for one of his children in the hallway of an elementary school, Gilmour said, Merzlak encountered a young girl who stared at him and ran into a classroom. Moments later, a teacher emerged from the classroom and said, ‘Oh, it’s you,’ to Merzlak, then told him that the child he had encountered was inside the classroom crying uncontrollably and saying that there were Indians in the hallway and that they were going to scalp her.

Christin Dingus, a New York State native of American Indian descent who now lives in Greene County, told the audience that she had been “embarrassed” to learn that she was Native American “because of what I had been taught (about Native Americans) in school.”

She also described a pair of incidents in which she said she feels her Native American heritage had resulted in her being treated rudely in Greeneville on more than one occasion.

One of those incidents, she said, took place about a year ago outside the Greeneville Wal-Mart store when a Boy Scout leader attempting to get her to purchase an item became irate during a discussion of Scout teachings on Native Americans and called her a “stupid injun.”

A man in the audience responded to Dingus’ story by saying that he himself was part Native American (Delaware and Cherokee) and had been appointed chairman of the Sequoyah Council of the Boy Scouts of America’s Native American Relations Committee.

That committee, he said, had been formed in reaction to incidents such as the one Dingus described.

“We are addressing incidents like this,” he said. “This afternoon, I wrote a letter to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America protesting some of the material they had printed. Your cry did not fall on deaf ears.”

Anna Lee, a Native American student at Erwin High School in Asheville, N.C., told the audience on Tuesday night that she was offended by a 25-foot-tall statue of an Indian outside her high school.

“It hurts me just to see that stereotype every morning as I walk into school,” she said.

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