SKOWHEGAN — A police investigation was launched Friday into an online arson threat to the Skowhegan Indian sculpture, a day before the community dedicates a new park at the statue in honor Bernard Langlais, the artist who made it.
The online threat was the latest sign of the hostility that has been sparked by the call, renewed last year, to remove “Indians” as Skowhegan Area High School’s nickname and mascot. Threats also have been made on the Facebook page of the movement’s organizers, and several threats about vandalizing the 62-foot statue near downtown Skowhegan have been made since debate started a year ago.
The threat, which said in part, “Torch the Indian,” and then demeaned those who are calling for the mascot to be dropped, came Thursday night in the comments section of a story published on centralmaine.com on an informational rally by members of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes and others at Skowhegan’s River Fest celebration.
Maulian Smith, who organized the rally and is named in the threatening comment, said she has been the target of vulgar names and racial epithets since the controversy began. Rude comments about Indians also have been posted in the newspaper comments section and on Smith’s Facebook page Notyourmascot Maine Chapter.
Skowhegan police Detective Joshua King is investigating the threat. Acting Police Chief Donald Bolduc said in an email Friday afternoon the department is investigating, but he would not comment further.
Former Police Chief Ted Blais, who retired earlier this month, said recently that threats of vandalism to the sculpture were made in April and May when School Administrative District 54 held meetings to debate getting rid of the Indians nickname and mascot.
Dedication of Langlais Park is set for 2 p.m. Saturday. There will be multiple speakers and a formal grand opening, to be followed by a walking tour of the 25 Langlais sculptures in Skowhegan.
The issue of removing the Indians mascot and nickname from Skowhegan Area High School has been a contentious one, reaching a peak in May when the SAD 54 board voted 11-9 to keep the nickname and mascot.
Smith, a member of the Penobscot tribe, said the Skowhegan Indian sculpture and the sports mascot are not related.
“The sculpture is a non-issue for me,” she said. “It is a historical monument and is not the focus of my work.
“It differs from the mascot because it is a commemorative work of art that represents an era in history. Indian mascots, on the other hand, reinforce stereotypes and encourage racist attitudes and behavior because they are degrading people who are still here.”
Smith said the purpose of Thursday’s gathering was to show support for Skowhegan area residents who want to change what she called the last racist and offensive Maine high school mascot. Smith lives and works on Indian Island in Penobscot County.
While Thursday’s rally was peaceful as intended, Barry Dana, of Solon the former chief of the Penobscot tribe, was interrupted while he was speaking.
“He has no business running off his mouth about the Indians,” bystander Ron Gordon shouted. “This landmark is an honor to the Indians to be named Skowhegan Indians. The name will never change.”
Jennifer Poirier, of Skowhegan, a member of the school board who voted against dropping the nickname and who formed a support page on Facebook for residents who want to keep Skowhegan the Indians called Skowhegan Indian Pride, said her group does not condone threats of arson or vandalism.
“Skowhegan Indian Pride does not condone any sort of violence, threats or offensive behavior and language,” Poirier said Friday. “A threat of this nature was made on the Notyourmascot page not so long ago. Unfortunately due to the heightened emotions on both sides of this issue, certain individuals choose to behave inappropriately. Skowhegan Indian Pride is a positive group and does not tolerate this sort of behavior.”
The online commenter Aviator2 posted Thursday, “Torch the Indian, along with the mascot. Allow the wooden Indian to light up the Skowhegan night sky in celebration of the mascots demise and smell the smoldering smoke for days to come into eternity.
“Honor them with the anonymity they are craving for. Cast them all from your collective consciousness and into obscure oblivion and send them all into your dimmest of memories! For they are neither mascots nor are they wooden Indians. There are mascots that are more worthy than those who are led by the PC Ms. Maulian Smith.”
Police on Friday asked the Morning Sentinel what firm hosts the comments section of the newspaper’s website, what the commenter’s screen name is and the email address, information the newspaper agreed to provide to authorities.
The post has since been removed. While commenters are required to register on the site, using an email address, they are not asked to give a name or other identifying information.
Scott Monroe, managing editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, said the comment appeared to advocate a specific criminal act, so it was taken down as soon as editors were aware of it. He said the newspapers’ site sometimes gets comments deemed offensive or dangerous, and those comments are removed and commenters are banned.
District Attorney Maeghan Maloney was made aware of the comment Friday. She wouldn’t say whether her office considered the arson threat a criminal act or a hate crime, but she noted that “the rule of law keeps us one country and one state.”
“No matter how convinced a person may be that his or her actions are justified, when those actions break the law my office will prosecute,” she said. “We do not want the chaos that would ensue from each person deciding what the law ‘should’ be.”
Skowhegan selectmen approved the name Langlais Park in May. The park includes public land in front of the Skowhegan Indian and new signs in English and in French explaining the origin of the statue, the restoration of the Indian and a short biography of artist Bernard Langlais. The parking lot has been redesigned with new paving and parking stripes.
The Indian statue, erected in 1969, was restored last year after years of deterioration. It cost $65,000, raised mostly through donations.
The park also includes shrubbery and donated plants from herbalist Gail Edwards, of Athens, for an educational garden made of edible and medicinal plants that indigenous people would have used. There also is a granite bench and a paved viewing area.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367