SKOWHEGAN — The next visible battle over Skowhegan High School’s Indians sports mascot and nickname is set to take place on Columbus Day, a polarizing federal holiday Native Americans say is a cutting reminder of their ancestors’ slaughter by Europeans that instead should celebrate indigenous people.

Jennifer Poirier, the administrator of the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook group, did not respond Thursday to a message asking whether her group considered the fact that Columbus Day is offensive to American Indians when planning the event.

The rally, to be held at Langlais Park, is one of two celebrations planned for Oct. 12 in the area. The other is Skowhegan Indigenous Peoples Day on the west side of Lake George Regional Park, the second year the gathering has been held in the area on Columbus Day.

The events are the latest surrounding the issue of Skowhegan High School’s Indians nickname and mascot. The school is the last one in the state that uses Native American imagery as a mascot.

Experts on Indian issues in American history say having the Skowhegan Indian Pride rally on Columbus Day shows, at best, a lack of sensitivity.

“It seems like bad timing,” Colby College professor Daniel Tortora said Thursday. “It seems like rubbing salt on the wound.

“Columbus represents the beginning of over 500 years of suffering in the face of colonization and oppression,” said Tortora, an assistant professor of history who teaches classes on Native American history. “It seem like an intentional decision.”

Poirier said there are many misconceptions about the people in her group, and “it’s time everyone knows the truth” about those who support the nickname. The rally, set for 4 p.m. in front of the 62-foot Skowhegan Indian sculpture by Maine artist Bernard Langlais, includes a food drive and raffle to raise money for the local soup kitchen and the animal shelter. Its aim “is to show positive support regarding not only the issue of a name, but to also bring together and strengthen our communities.”

Maulian Smith, who heads the effort to get rid of the Indians nickname, said the “Indian pride” rally is an “insulting irony,” pointing out that Columbus Day “in the native community is nothing to celebrate, as he is a murderous and brutal attacker of our ancestors.”

She said the charity aspects of the event don’t lessen that.

“What makes this even more laughable is that they are having a rally in the name of charity, when the cause of the event is keeping racism and hate alive in their community,” Smith said. “They are trying to distract from the negative view that everyone has of them because of their support for a racist and outdated mascot by coming off like this is an event to give back to their community.”

John Bear Mitchell, the Wabanaki Center Outreach and Student Development Coordinator at the University of Maine, said he thinks the rally’s timing isn’t so much “an insult as much as I think it’s pure unmindfulness.”

“It tends to give the appearance of a dismissive attitude that is often present in the arena of education,” he said Thursday. “It’s just a sad exhibition of very poor planning and lacks any real thought.”

‘IT’S JUST A DAY’

Poirier, who is also a member of the Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 school board, which voted 11-9 in May to keep the Indians mascot name, said the day of the rally — Columbus Day — was chosen after a long planning process and consultation with the town. Poirier said she worked with the town and local businesses to find a day when her group could use Langlais Park without interfering with business parking and street congestion. She said she submitted the proper permit paperwork to the town and to the selectmen without a requested date.

“After several weeks, we were approved,” Poirier said. “Oct. 12 was the most feasible day because many businesses are closed since it is a federally recognized holiday and more people would be able to participate.”

Poirier’s Aug. 12 application for a gathering, though, shows Oct. 12 as the specific requested date for the “rally to support keeping Skowhegan the Indians.” The time of the rally was to be determined “depending on local businesses closing time,” according to a written note on the application.

The application was examined by Town Manager Christine Almand and it was determined that by town ordinance the group did not require an application for a permit to gather. Poirier’s $30 application fee was refunded. The application never went to the Board of Selectmen for a vote, said Almand, who declined to comment on the rally and the date the group chose.

Lynda Quinn, a pro-mascot advocate who was elected to the school board in June, after the vote to keep the Indians nickname, said Columbus Day is just another day off from school for the students. She said she doesn’t think Poirier had the negative implications of Columbus Day in mind when she set the date for the rally.

“I really can’t imagine that she thought of that deliberately,” Quinn, a former Skowhegan selectwoman and county commissioner, said Thursday. “I’m sure she picked it because it was a day off from school. I don’t think she made that connection.

“It’s not a bad day. It’s just a day, and I don’t look at Columbus that way.”

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY

Meanwhile, those in favor of the school district dropping the nickname are celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in Skowhegan for the second straight year. Last year the gathering was held on Columbus Day in the parking lot of the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market.

The focus of the Indigenous Peoples Day is to shift the focus of what American Indians see as the beginning of the mistreatment of the people who were here when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.

Smith said the purpose of the event is to celebrate indigenous people of Maine and the world “and to show thanks to our ancestors for preserving our ways even though they had to face warfare, attempted genocide and unthinkable hardships to make sure that we can continue to exist and have our culture.”

There’s a movement around the world to abolish Columbus Day and instead celebrate indigenous people, according to Smith’s father, Barry Dana, of Solon, former chief of the Penobscot tribe.

“The Jewish people would never celebrate a Hitler Day as a holiday, nor do natives honor Columbus,” he said. “This year we are focusing on positive contributions that native people make to the world.”

The group organizing the rally has a public Facebook page, Skowhegan Indigenous Peoples Day, and is supported by the Not Your Mascot Maine Chapter Facebook page, whose membership is actively working for the removal of the nickname from Skowhegan high school sports teams. The page is run by Smith.

Indigenous Peoples Day is not a new concept. The cities of Berkeley, California, Seattle and Minneapolis already have recognized Indigenous Peoples Days. Hawaii, Oregon and Alaska are among 16 states that don’t recognize Columbus Day as a public holiday, according to a CNN report last year. South Dakota renamed the holiday Native American Day in 1990.

BIGGER PICTURE

Poirier said keeping the school name is not the group’s only concern.

“Our group is a place to converse with people who share similar views and to support community members because that’s what a community family is all about,” she said. “I believe our group has so many members because we are a community full of pride.”

The event includes a food drive and group photo opportunity sponsored by supporters of Skowhegan Indian Pride, whose membership says the Indians nickname used by the school is an important part of their local history and heritage. It’s set for 4 p.m. in front of the 62-foot Skowhegan Indian sculpture by Maine artist Bernard Langlais.

“We share community events and cheer on our teams, but we also come together to support community members in need,” she said. “We have rallied support to help families in crisis, and we will be holding a group community service project in a few weeks.”

The Columbus Day rally organized by Skowhegan Indian Pride will feature merchandise to be given away in a raffle.

Names will be entered for the drawings by bringing nonperishable food items for the local soup kitchen and the local animal shelter, Poirier said.

Debate about dropping the Indians name from the high school sports teams came to a head in April and May with a meeting with tribal leaders and a public forum on the issue.

Poirier this week echoed many who support keeping the school’s nickname. “The Skowhegan Indian name has been a long-standing tradition that encompasses the entire community’s history and heritage.”

Mitchell, of UMaine, has said that people who support use of Indian images and nicknames for sports teams think mascots aren’t racist because they themselves aren’t offended and that “tradition” often is used to defend the mascots.

Tortora, from Colby College, said the “larger picture” of debates about American Indian mascots are being played out all over the United States, so it comes as no surprise that it is happening in Maine as well but is “no less concerning.”

“It enables me to see why Indians are passionate about the harms of mascots and where it fits into the bigger picture, and many people might not be aware of that,” he said. “Some are, but many are not. It seems then that people are still passionate to keep it, that they’ll kind of rub it in the face of people that are offended and have been offended for years.”

He said the continued debate about school sports mascots is raising awareness and discussion about use of Native American nicknames and images and reminding people who are somewhere in the middle that “Indians do exist and they are prideful and they are real people.”

This is a corrected version.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter:@Doug_Harlow