Sacred American Indian imagery used offensively at Clyde A. Erwin High School in Buncombe County/Asheville, North Carolina, 1999:

Report to U.S. Justice Department by Yale University Professor Dr. Jace Weaver

(WNCCEIB note: The USJD's March 4, 1999 agreement with the Buncombe County Public Schools included eliminating "squaw" as the female athlete's mascot at Erwin High School, increasing the number of diversity materials in all 37 of Buncombe County's public schools, and eliminating "permanently from the School any and all uses of American Indian religious symbols, including those that may be part of any display or depiction, which are identified as being offensive to or disrespectful of American Indian culture by the Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or her representative, after a tour of the entire School facility and grounds, except that the two totem poles currently situated at the School, and the statue in front of the School, may remain." U.S. Justice Dept. Letter March 4, 1999

For reasons that are not clear, the Erwin principal and Cherokee representatives did not work out a time for the walk-through to take place. As we understand it, in early August, school officials contacted Justice Department officials and asked them to find an expert to carry out the "walk-through." The Justice Department turned to an eminently qualified expert at Yale University, Dr. Jace Weaver (PhD.) , who is a lawyer and a professor of American Studies and Religious Studies.

His report is dated August 30, 1999 and was submitted to the Justice Department at that time. Several weeks passed before the Justice Department processed and transmitted it to the Buncombe County Public Schools. The Buncombe County Intertribal Association first obtained a copy of the report from School officials on November 10, 1999. The public first learned of the report's content on November 12, 1999 after a local TV station obtained a copy from School officials and did a news story on the report.

In that November 12 news report, Dr. Bob Bowers, Superintendent of the Buncombe County Public Schools was reported to have said that the School Board will seek a "second opinion" on the report. If, after reading the report below, you would like to share your reactions to the report or to the School Board's decision to seek a second opinion, you may email Dr. Bowers with this link. Please cc us at

Below is Dr. Weaver's full report.)

Regarding Site Visit to Erwin High School

On August 19, 1999, at the request of the Civil Rights Division, I toured Clyde A. Erwin High School in Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina. I was accompanied and guided on my tour by Mal Brown, the principal of the school, and Cynthia Lopez, counsel for the school. The walk-through took slightly over one hour, and at its end, though I had not visited every bit of the school and grounds, representations were made to me that I had seen all the Native American imagery and objects at the school.

Before turning to specific items, I must observe that the Native American imagery and symbols are pervasive throughout the school. This experience begins even in the initial moments of a visit. The first thing one sees, even from some distance, as one approaches the school (which is set on a hill) is an outsized statue of a Native American male, his arm extended in what appears to be a stereotypical Indian greeting (i.e. "Hao").

Approaching the front entrance of the school, one sees next a carved wooden totem pole, approximately seven-feet tall. Finally, in the school's main lobby, immediately to the left of the front entrance, is a large mural of a Plains Indian chief in flowing headdress. And these are merely the first things a person coming to the schools sees. The theme is continued throughout the building and I believe that the overall cumulative effect, aside from any specific object or image, would be perceived as extremely hostile by Native American persons.

This perception of hostility was tacitly admitted to me by Principal Brown during the tour. He noted that several years ago, a group of local Cherokees came for an event in the school gymnasium. At the time, at center court on the gym floor was some kind of Native American imagery. At one end of the court, under the basketball goal, was the word "Warriors" At the corresponding end was the word "Squaws." Each represented the name of the men's and women's sports teams, respectively. According to Principal Brown, after their guests pointed out the offensive nature of the display, the floor was redone, removing the material. None of these items are any longer visible. I was told that this was long prior to the current controversy. As already noted however, the overall effect of imagery in the school is little changed.

I will now turn to specific items seen during my visit. I have documented many of these with photographs.

In the main lobby of the school there is the previously mentioned mural. There is also a glass display case containing many Native American objects. The mural is a profile of a Plains chief, with a prominent nose, in a full headdress. The headdress is clearly composed of many eagle feathers. Eagle feathers are sacred not only to many different tribal traditions but also to the Native American Church, which uses them as part of prayer. Eagle feathers are especially sacred because it is believed that the eagle flies the highest of any bird and thus is closest to the creator. Representations of eagle feathers would be religious in nature and the manner of display would be offensive to many Native Americans.

In the picture the bonnet is clasped by a gold-colored circular medallion on which then are faint concentric red circles. Both Principal Brown and Ms. Lopez specifically asked me if the clasp or anything else in evidence was a "medicine wheel." I saw nothing during my visit that I would classify as a medicine wheel (although because of my understanding of the agreement reached between the school board and the Justice Department allowing the outside statue and the two totems to remain, I did not examine these items closely). Medicine wheels are ceremonial symbols made by stone circles or patterns on the ground or represented on mandalas (sacred shields). It way be, however, that the concentric, circles and the round gold clasp could be taken for a medicine wheel symbol and would therefore be religious in nature and its display offensive.

Alternatively, the symbol on the gold clasp is close to representations of the sun among many tribal traditions. I think this more likely, since the 'warrior' depicted is from a Plains tribe, which would practice the Sun Dance. The sun is sacred among many tribal traditions. This then would be equally religious imagery and offensive in its manner of display.

The display case immediately to the right of mural contains various items of Indian regalia. I was told by Principal Brown that the items were donated to the school by a local Native American when he moved away from the area. There is a feather headdress, a shirt, a vest, leggings, moccasins, a fur choker, a medicine bag, and a brass arm band. The moccasins, the bag the vest, and the choker are all to varying degrees beaded. In particular, the choker and bag contain circular designs that could be construed as medicine wheels, in which case display would be seen as offensive by many Native Americans.

The bag is displayed with a number of feathers sticking out of it. Though neither these feathers nor those of the headdress appear to be eagle feathers, the effect of the feathers protruding from the medicine bag is religious in its imagery and would be highly offensive. Further, it should be noted that eagle feathers are not the only sacred feathers. Many types of feathers are required for sacred ceremonies in different tribal traditions. They are attached to prayersticks, rattles, masks, and other religious objects used in ceremonies and healing. They are often used as votive offerings. They are also used alone in prayer. The feather often represents a bridge between this the material world and the spirit world. They also have many other religious meanings. Any display of feathers, regardless of type, should be considered religious and offensive.

The vest is especially problematic. A recurring image on the vest is the 'swastika.' Among some tribal traditions, this is a sacred symbol representing the four directions, Among the Hopi, it is a religious symbol of masculinity and purity. It represents one of the two helpers of the promised 'true brother' who is to come in the Hopi religion. It is related to the sun symbol previously mentioned, and is painted on the Powamuy rattle used in religious ceremony. I believe the display of the vest to be highly offensive.

In the school office, there is a display of the school's logo. To my observation this is the one place it is visible in the school building, but Principal Brown told me that it is used on stationary, programs for school events, school coffee mugs, etc. A xerox of the logo is attached hereto. The centerpiece of the logo is a crest. Atop the crest is a profile of an Indian very similar to the lobby mural except here the clasp contains an image of a star (itself a potentially religious image as it was and is used in a variety of religious contexts including on Ghost Dance shirts). Inside the crest is a thunderbird, a pipe, an arrow, a fire, and a clenched fist shooting lightening. These are all powerful religious symbols, and, because of their use in this secular manner, the total logo should be considered extremely offensive. The thunderbird is a prominent religious symbol among many tribes, particularly in the American Southwest. The pipe is likewise widespread; it is especially sacred among Lakota. Sacred arrows are the most sacred possessions of the Cheyenne. The fist with lightening could be offensive to several different tribal traditions, including the Cherokee (for whom it may evoke the primordial battle between Thunder and the Uk'ten', the battle between good and evil.) and the Apache (who have medicine men who possess lightening power). The fire is especially troubling. Given the location of the school, it seems likely that it represents the sacred fire of the Cherokee, symbol of the Cherokee people. This identification is heightened by the presence of seven logs in the fire, representing the seven clans of the Cherokee. (WNCCEIB has added a link here to theErwin High School logo)

In the school offices are also a print showing mystical looking warriors of indeterminate origin and a small bust of an Indian male. Likewise, in a trophy case in the gym area, there is a similar male bust and a female bust that once represented a "squaw" but represents a "lady warrior." Though these are cheap mass-produced items of no religious meaning (other than possibly depictions of eagle feathers), they contribute to an overall environment that would be considered offensive by many Native Americans.

On each of the three floors above the ground floor, there is a mural on one wall near the staircase. One depicts a large arrowhead and a totem pole, similar to the two in the school. The significance of the arrow has already been noted. Although I understand that the agreement reached with the school allows the two totem poles to remain, I must make a comment generally about totems generally, and in the case of this mural in particular (if the poles are to remain). Though it has been observed that there are as many definitions of "totemism" as there are scholars defining the term, some general comments can be made. Many tribal traditions believe that there is a mysterious kinship between certain animals and other natural phenomena and Native kinship groupings. There is often a feeling of affinity between a clan and its totem. There are taboos against the killing of clan animals since humans are related to the animals whose totem they represent. In some cases, totem spirits are clan protectors and the center of religious activity. This mural thus has religious imagery that would be offensive.

A second mural depicts an Indian male who appears to be dancing. In general, Native religious traditions are religions of ritual performance. Dance is a primary modality in religious ceremony. This image is therefore potentially disrespectful and thus offensive.

The third mural contains no Native American images.

The school gym contains the second totem pole. On the floor of the gym, pointing to the basement is an Indian arrow as a direction indicator (the potentially religious nature of arrows has already been noted). In the gym and elsewhere in the school are numerous photos of old school sports teams. Though, to my observation, the word "squaw" has been removed from all school walls, it is still clearly visible on the uniforms of the women's teams in these pictures.

These represent all the Native American images seen during my visit. Before concluding however, two further points must be made. The first concerns the nature of Native religions. The second relates to context.

Native American religious traditions are very different from Christianity and Western religions. First, they are not primarily religions of ethics, or dogma, or theology. Rather they are religions , as already noted, of ritual practice. Further, they are not only religions of ritual observance, but they also permeate every aspect of daily life and existence. Native Americans, as is commonly said, draw no distinction between everyday life and their spirituality. There is not, as there is in Western religion, a sharp bifurcation between sacred and secular or profane spheres. As a report by the U.S. Forest Service observed in another case, "Because of the particular nature of Indian perceptual experience, as opposed to the particular nature of predominant non-Indian, Western perceptual experience, any division into 'religious' or 'sacred' is in reality an exercise that forces Indian concepts into non-Indian categories, and distorts the original conceptualization in the process." Thus many practices, items, or images that might appear to non-Indians as merely "cultural" and not religious can nonetheless have important religious meaning to Native Americans.

Finally, the importance of context here should not be minimized. It may be argued that many images and symbols, such as those that appear at the school, are found in a variety of venues, from Native American art to powwow regalia. Often, however, the Native American artist has permission from appropriate tribal or religious authorities to use certain symbols in his or her work. Symbols used on powwow or ceremonial dress often have special significance to the person who wears them. To remove them from the Native American contexts and present them as at the school would be both disrespectful and offensive. Indeed the sheer volume of such representations and items at the school merely adds to this. The overall effect is one which I believe would be offensive to many Native American persons and would serve to create a hostile environment at the school.

This concludes my analysis of the Native American symbols, items and imagery at Erwin, based upon my site visit.

Very truly yours,
Dr. Jace Weaver (PhD.)
Associate Professor
American Studies and Religious Studies
Yale University
August 30, 1999

WNCCEIB note: If, after reading the report, you would like to share your reactions to the report or to the School Board's decision to seek a second opinion, you may email Buncombe Co. Public Schools' Superintendent Dr. Bob Bowers at Please cc us

Also, it should be noted that apparently Principal Mal Brown inaccurately told Dr. Weaver that the Native American imagery was removed from the gym floor "long prior to the current controversy." In fact, the imagery was removed during 1997 at which time the Buncombe County Intertribal Association had initiated monthly meetings with school officials in an effort to work with them to remove Indian mascots and imagery from the school. Also, Principal Brown apparently did not convey to Dr. Weaver the elimination in 1995 of the grotesque "Willie the Warrior" mascot that cavorted at athletic events. He was eliminated after two American Indian students protested. The two students subsequently were harassed by other students to the point of leaving the school, though school officials have denied the harassment was a factor.
Back To NC Overview Index Page

Back to Buncombe Co. NC/Erwin High School Index Page