Washington Post - Wednesday February 17, 1999
ASHEVILLE, N.C.óRayne Merzlak never dwelt much on his
Lakota Sioux heritage,
being a teenager with other things on his mind, until one day at a pep rally
for the Erwin High School Warriors and Squaws. As a whooping mascot in a
feathered headdress ran out onto the floor, other students chanted about their
intentions for the opposing team: "Let's scalp 'em!"
And, as if he were seeing the scene for the first time,
Merzlak said, he felt
deeply offended. "They thought it was a joke," said the 1998 graduate, now 18.
"But I didn't think it was a joke."
After two years of intense debate in this North Carolina
mountain town about
whether Erwin High's mascot and team names should be changed, the federal
government has decided to enter the fray. The Justice Department has launched
its first investigation into whether these symbols violate the civil rights of
Native American students--to the chagrin of some, who resent what they call
interference in a local matter, and to the delight of others, who say Indians
have been belittled for far too long.
The issue resonates around the country, from the Los Angeles
where board of education officials decided in 1997 to remove all Indian-themed
mascots, to the nation's capital, where Native American groups urge the
Washington Redskins pro football team to adopt another name. It touches deep
wells of resentment among Native Americans, who see themselves as about the
last ethnic group others feel free to mock with impunity, and it raises
questions about how much harm such stereotyping does to the youth involved.
"I don't think any racist images should be used as mascots, but if they agree
to spread the honor--when we have the Washington Blackskins or the San
Francisco Chinks or the Los Angeles Chicanos--I'll shut my mouth," said
Rayne's mother, Pat Merzlak, a nurse who wrote the Justice Department
requesting the investigation. "Nobody would consider anything like that, but it's okay to
treat Indian culture as something other than human."
To others, however, the controversy seems a case of hypersensitivity
in an age
when political correctness has gone to extremes. They contend the issue is too
trivial to warrant weighty discussion, much less intervention by the federal
government. And, they say, there is no need to tamper with harmless sports
traditions that were only meant to honor the Indian spirit.
Whatever the view, the debate has gained tremendous momentum nationwide.
Native American groups estimate that more than 600 schools, including Stanford
University and Miami University of Ohio, have gotten rid of Indian mascots and
names. But more than 2,500 other schools around the country still employ those
The University of North Dakota is fighting a resolution
in the state
legislature that would urge the school to drop the name "The Fighting Sioux."
Last fall, a United Methodist Commission on Race urged the denomination to
move its general conference out of Cleveland in 2000 in protest of Chief Wahoo, the
grinning, befeathered symbol of baseball's Cleveland Indians. And Dallas
public schools, following the lead of Los Angeles, moved last year to ban the
American Indian mascots used at nine of its schools--at a cost of about $40,000 to
cover the changes in uniforms and school emblems on gym floors and walls.
"When the American Indian community came to us and lodged
a complaint, we
determined the mascots violated our diversity-anti-harassment policy," said
Clarence Glover, Dallas's special assistant to the general superintendent for
intercultural relations. "I think people had gone along with these mascots for
so long, it was a matter of timing, when the American Indians came to the
table, like the African Americans and Asians and Hispanics before them."
Professional sports teams--the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, the
Chicago Blackhawks, and of course, the Cleveland Indians and Washington
Redskins--also have come under attack. But they are in a different league from
public schools and state-supported colleges, which depend on public funds.
Nonetheless, Native American groups hammer away, staging small protests
the stadium, for instance, when the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians faced
off in the 1995 World Series.
Last May, a Native American group urged a federal agency
to cancel the
trademark protection of the Redskins, which could forfeit the club's exclusive
rights to use the Redskins name on T-shirts and caps. No decision has been
rendered, said Redskins spokesman Mike McCall.
Here, outside Erwin High School, a 30-foot-tall Indian
figure greets visitors
with a "How" gesture, a tomahawk clutched in the other hand. Supporters see it
fondly as an abiding school symbol; others, like Monroe Gilmour of the Western
North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry, see it as a "lawn
jockey." A big sign declares Erwin to be the "Home of the Warriors and
Erwin is the most diverse school in largely white Buncombe
Principal Malcolm Brown. Of its 1,100 students, he said, about 10 percent are
African American, 2 to 3 percent are Hispanic, and fewer than 1 percent are
The school also reflects the area's unusually large Ukrainian
said, with Ukrainian students accounting for about 3 percent of the school's
Initially, Brown said, the dispute here focused on the
word "squaw" to
describe the female athletes. Although many view the term as innocuous, Native
Americans consider it pejorative, derived from an Algonquin word describing female
genitalia, said David Rider, a psychologist who teaches at New Orleans' Xavier
University and has spoken often against the abuse of Indian symbols. Indeed, a
movement also is afoot to expunge the word from place names such as the Squaw
Creek Wildlife Refuge in Missouri.
Principal Brown said he can understand the objection.
"From the onset, I have said publicly numerous times, I felt the 'Squaws'
should be changed, after learning things I did not know. . . . I have a wife
and daughter, and it would not please me to hear them called that," he said.
What Brown and many others here object to, however, is the Department of
Justice's query about whether the school has created "a racially hostile
environment," as stated in the Jan. 22 letter the agency sent to Buncombe
County school superintendent Bob Bowers. Although the U.S. Department of
Education has investigated similar cases before, this is the first time the
Justice Department has taken on the issue, said Justice spokeswoman Christine
The agency's letter also requests answers to 14 questions,
detailed history of the mascots, a copy of district policy on racial discrimination,
and an explanation of how the mascot is portrayed on school stationery.
The Justice Department's interest in the case raises the stakes
considerably. A fight to keep Erwin's Indian theme could jeopardize the $8 million in federal
funding the school district receives each year and could cost as much as
$500,000 in legal fees, said Buncombe County school board chairman Wendell
"That's the money issue, but there's also an emotional
issue," he said.
Judging from the speakers at recent hearings staged by the school board, and
from callers to local radio talk shows, it seems that many people here are
more determined than ever to keep the mascots, inflamed by the federal government's
inquiry. But the final decision lies with the board, which will take up the
case at its March 4 meeting.
"My listeners are conservatives," said Matt Collins, who
hosts "The Matt
Collins Show" each morning on WTZY-AM in Asheville, "and they think the
federal government getting involved in what is a minor issue is a waste of time and
money. They're using our taxpayer money to fight us. It has raised the
passions of people."
Rayne Merzlak is not sorry about that. Now working as
an electrician and
attending technical college, he said the controversy has awakened in him an
awareness of what it really means to be an ethnic minority.
"They're saying, 'We don't want to change it. Leave us
alone. If the Indians
have a problem, they can leave. There's one of you and hundreds of us,' " said
Merzlak, who has two younger sisters who will someday attend the high school.
"I think it just goes to show how ignorant people can be."