SKOWHEGAN — The young organizer of a petition drive, placard protest and Facebook page to keep the “Indians” mascot at Skowhegan Area High School had a change of heart during a public forum on the issue Monday night, drawing praise from tribal representatives who say the nickname is offensive and should be changed.

Zachary Queenan, 17, a senior and one-time Skowhegan track and field athlete at the school who is home-schooled, said he saw the pain felt by Maine’s Indians and their supporters and he had an epiphany.

“I just started seeing some of the testimonials from the people and talking about how they felt about it, how they feel we should continue, and it just started making sense that how I was feeling before was really wrong,” Queenan said Tuesday. “I believe that if the minority says that it really bothers them, that we should take that heavily into consideration and proceed forward in a respectful manner.”

Now he said he believes the name Indians should be changed.

The School Administrative District 54 board held the forum Monday with the ground rule that only residents of the school district and state legislators would be allowed to speak for two minutes, expressing their opinion about whether the school nickname and mascot should be changed. The school board could vote on the issue at a meeting Thursday night.

Queenan said his change of heart had been building and reached a tipping point Monday night. As a devout Christian, he said, he didn’t see a lot of love Monday night coming from the people who want to keep the name.

“God teaches to love one another, love thy brother, and I didn’t feel in my heart that there was love. They didn’t seem like they were feeling much love there,” Queenan said. “It didn’t feel right in my heart, and I knew I had to make a change.”

Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes — all members of the umbrella Wabanaki federation in Maine — told a school board subcommittee April 13 that the use of the word Indians is an insult to them. Members of the four tribes, as well as the Bangor NAACP and others in the state, want the name changed, saying the tribes are people and people are not mascots.

High school athletes, parents and boosters of Skowhegan Area High School said the nickname is their tradition, their identity and their way of respecting and honoring Indians. They said use of the image and name should not be seen as insulting or racist.

Queenan started a paper petition of signatures to keep the word Indians as a mascot name during a Skowhegan business fair in February. He later created an online petition and a Facebook page, “Keep Skowhegan the Indians,” which has generated more than 3,300 likes. He said in all, his petition initiatives have garnered about 1,000 signatures.

As of Tuesday night, the Facebook page was still active, but had been turned over to someone else who encouraged supporters on Tuesday to write letters to the school board.

Queenan had said he would turn his Facebook page and petitions over to another student to administer.

Barry Dana, of Solon, the former chief of the Penobscot tribe, said Tuesday that Queenan “represents the future of what today’s town and school leaders should hope for in tomorrow’s leaders.”

“Zach stood strong on what he thought to be the right thing, but when someone of his character takes a moment to listen to others who may have a different opinion, they have the ability to empathize,” Dana said. “I hope he decides to become a school board member someday.”

Lynda Quinn, a former Skowhegan selectman and Somerset County commissioner who spoke at Monday’s forum in support of keeping Indians as a mascot, said Queenan’s reversal has no impact on her feelings.

“That’s fine. People’s opinions are people’s opinions, and if he’s switched sides, that’s fine,” she said Tuesday. “My issue right from the beginning is I didn’t want to be told what to do by people on the outside, and of course, Barry Dana and his group have done that.”

Quinn said when the question of changing the sports mascot came up 15 years ago, local officials spoke to area residents who are Indians and respected what they had to say. She said the caricatures, cartoons and the mascot costume were eliminated, but the Indians name stayed.

Quinn said she now fears momentum is building to change more than just the sports nickname, and that Skowhegan will be forced to give up its name and its identity as a community.

“I don’t want people from the outside to tell me how to live, how to think and how to run my community,” Quinn said.

Maulian Smith, a member of the Penobscot tribe, who grew up and still lives and works on the Indian Island reservation near Old Town in Penobscot County, tried to read a letter from Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot tribe, during the forum Monday night, but was turned away by a police officer because she is not a resident.

On Tuesday, she praised Queenan for his leadership.

“We are so honored that he is courageous and gracious enough to take a stand for what is right even if it means changing his view,” Smith said Tuesday. “This is an important example for all people of a young man who is a true leader. It makes me very happy.”

Queenan, who lives in Cornville, said he had to ask himself which was the stronger tradition: “Native Americans who have been here for thousands of years? Or those that have had that name here for 70 years?”

“It was sort of an epiphany, and it all came together last night,” he said. “I would never have come to this conclusion if it wasn’t for how active I’ve been, looking into everything and taking everyone’s opinion into consideration. I have to thank everyone who has liked the page because I would never have gotten here by myself.”

Queenan, who is earning his course of studies for graduation with Compuhigh, an online high school diploma program called Whitmore School in West Virginia, said he is invested in the school as a student athlete who earned a letter for track and field his freshman year. He said the community should vote on what to do next with the sports nickname.

The SAD 54 school board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in the middle school cafeteria. Superintendent Brent Colbry said Tuesday the board will follow up on discussion concerning the mascot and could vote on what the next step will be in the process.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter: @Doug_Harlow