Schools must banish negative images of Indians

by Monroe Gilmour

(A Guest Column in the May 22, 1999 "Asheville Citizen Times")

Your May 14 editorial "Erwin compromise a step in the right direction" strikes a note that the Buncombe County School Board will hopefully hear.

Unfortunately, the March 4, 1999 compromise between the U.S. Justice Department and the Board of Education, which eliminated the "squaw" mascot for female athletes, retained the Indian imagery for the male's "warrior" mascot, and eliminated some of the inappropriate imagery around Erwin High School, is apparently not considered by our school board a "step" toward anything, much less toward your goal of "building a foundation of good will and respect."

Quite the contrary. "This is not a first step. This is the step," boomed the voice of Erwin District school board member Roger Aiken at that March 4 board meeting (AC-T March 5, 1999). He seemed to be expressing his exhaustion with the issue and his willingness to wallow in a decision that bowed to angry alumni rather than to the educational interests of Buncombe County students.

The Intertribal Association has heard such words of finality before. Former superintendent Frank Yeager, initially encouraging, later told the Association that there was too much alumni opposition to make the change. A year later, in June 1998, the Board decided to accept the students' dubious vote as binding and told the Association, "This is a dead issue." Six months later the issue was alive again as the Justice Department got involved.

Much as the board would like to see this issue disappear, history teaches that questions of fairness and respect do not go away until resolved. According to the April 15 Orlando Sentinel, respected Florida State professor and member of the university's Athletic Board, Dr. Fred Standley, told that Board in regard to retaining the Florida State Seminole mascot, "We're going to lose this issue. It's only a matter of time." He went on, "I'm not here to argue about that, I'm here to tell you we're in a decided minority on this issue. . .this is a losing battle."

Also in April, the Utah Department of Transportation acting as a result of a Utah Supreme Court case revoked three permits for personalized license plates with "redskins" on them stating that use of that term is "tantamount to a racial slur."

In April too, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office ruled that the Washington Redskins have "no right to trademark their name because it is disparaging to Native Americans." According to the April 3, 1999 Washington Post, "This ruling could jeopardize millions of dollars in revenue that the National Football League reaps from the sale of Redskins merchandise."

To some observers, these examples point to "political correctness" run amuck. Having participated in monthly meetings with Buncombe County School Board officials during 1997-98, I concluded that they felt that way, too. Seared in my memory is a board member telling us that the Erwin controversy over "squaw" is "just like with the blacks. They were called n----r and didn't like that, they were called 'boy' and didn't like that; they were called 'colored' and didn't like that. When does it ever end?"

My experience is that, for the most part, the charge of "political correctness" is leveled by people with power to diminish or dismiss the legitimate concerns of people without power. Were complaints about "little Black Sambo" simply the politically-correct police at work? Or did we as a society finally come to see that images we use to depict other people are real and have important implications for those people and, in turn, for us?

If there is any lesson from the Littleton, Colo. tragedy it is that we all need to stop calling each other names and learn to respect people who are different from the majority, different from those in power. That is what numerous Indian tribal councils and organizations have said in regard to the use of Indian mascots. The 300-member Society of Indian Psychologists (SIP) issued a statement in January asking for the "retiring of all American Indian personalities as team mascots."

Dennis Tibbetts, a PhD, SIP member, and director of the Center for Native American studies at Northern Michigan University, said in an April 1999 American Psychological Association journal article, "It's distressing when Native people who are searching for their own identity or attempting to present their tribal identity as accurately as possible have to combat the dominant culture over the offensive use of our images and symbols." Is our school board deaf to such words?

To date, the Buncombe County School Board has responded politically and financially to contain the Erwin mascot issue but has yet to address seriously the educational basis for the complaints. Requests that they do so have gone unanswered. They want the issue off their plate but they have not said and cannot say that the use of American Indian imagery in Erwin's mascot does not harm Indian students and teach stereotypes to non-Indian students. There is simply too much research for them to attempt to deny that conclusion from an educational or curriculum perspective.

In the end, the issue is about far more than a high school mascot. It is about how we as a community are going to treat the diverse cultures living amongst us. It is more than a political issue, or a financial issue, or even an educational issue. At some point it becomes a moral issue.

In the coming months, will school board members behave as adult-equivalents of the school yard bullies we have heard described in so much detail in relation to Columbine High School? Will they perpetuate a policy that alienates and manifests disrespect for those who are different in our community? Or will they build on this change in the female athlete mascot and, by their leadership, create a school system in which all students feel respected? That is their challenge.

(Gilmour is coordinator of WNC Citizens For An End To Institutional Bigotry and may be reached at or PO Box 18640 Asheville, NC 28816)