SKOWHEGAN — The Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce has issued an apology and withdrawn a holiday business promotion it called “Hunt for the Indian” after a weekend of social media outrage lambasting the effort as racially insensitive.

The promotion, announced in emails sent Saturday morning and slated to run Nov. 24-Dec. 30, asked chamber members to join them in placing a small “Indian” figurine inside one of their businesses each day. A photo of the figurine in the store for that day was to be posted on the chamber’s Facebook page along with clues about where it could be found by shoppers, who would receive discounts on merchandise if they found it. The figurine would be removed at the end of the day and placed in another business the next morning.

Residents quickly took to social media decrying the promotion, with one saying the effort was “heaping disgrace” on the town.

And even as the chamber apologized for the abandoned effort, board members gave contradictory statements on Monday about who was involved in the decision to do the promotion.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot tribe, wrote in an email to the Morning Sentinel Monday that while he commends the chamber for its quick realization that this was a bad idea, he also believes that “it shows that we need to be conscious of these things up front and not have the affects of them be an afterthought.”

“I think this just shows how far away we are in terms of the understanding some people have on not only the history of Native people in this state but also that we are very much present and functioning here today,” Francis said in the email. “This is a prime example of not seeing Native people as real, and we are not just something of the past but functioning members of today’s society. These types of activities create a mindset that fuels the minimization of Native people.

“I hope that the town of Skowhegan will have a serious dialogue on this issue and the effects, psychologically, their activities have on the Native people they say they are honoring under imagery that does not belong and is not accurate historically or in today’s society.”

The promotion follows a recent separate controversy involving racially sensitive behavior when the mother of a Micmac Indian who plays football for Lisbon High School alleged that fans and players mocked Native Americans with offensive stereotypes during a football game at Wells High School. It also comes after years of debate about Skowhegan Area High School’s use of an “Indians” mascot for sports teams, culminating in a May 2015 vote by the school board to keep the nickname for sports teams despite opposition by Native American tribe members.

The Indian figurine that was the object of the hunt was to be a small, 4-inch wooden replica of the 62-foot-tall Bernard Langlais sculpture, which is owned by the chamber, erected and dedicated in 1969 in downtown Skowhegan to honor local tribes.

Former state House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, a Democrat from Skowhegan, posted on Facebook over the weekend that the chamber’s promotion was “extremely culturally insensitive.”

“I asked my 11-year-old daughter about her thoughts and she described it as rude,” McCabe wrote in response to a post objecting to the promotion by Skowhegan resident Cecil Gray. “I would hope the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce rethinks idea and swiftly apologizes.”

The apology from the Chamber came Sunday evening in an email that said: “Never were we so wrong in thinking that this latest promotion involving the Chamber’s Skowhegan Indian statue would be a good idea. This event has been canceled.”

“It was never our intention to offend anyone, quite the opposite,” the chamber wrote. “It was our goal to honor our community icon, support local business and engage the people of greater Skowhegan. Now we understand we’ve created a bigger problem of not seeing our actions from others’ perspectives given the local and national issues around mascots and racism.”

The chamber added that: “Because of the outpouring of objections, we are working to schedule and host community meetings to discuss this very important issue. No apology can take away our lack of empathy and foresight in this decision. And, for that we are truly sorry.”

By Monday evening, the chamber’s apology on its Facebook page had been shared more than 50 times and had 55 comments

CONTRADICTORY STATEMENTS

Despite the apology, the chamber leadership on Monday wouldn’t elaborate on who decided to run the promotion.

The chamber website had earlier listed its 2017 board of directors as: Danielle Denis, president; Kate Mantor, vice chair; Dana Hamilton, 2nd vice chair; Travis Works, treasurer; Elizabeth Barron, secretary; Cathe Ayres, member at large; Vanessa Quinn; and Brenda Washburn.

By Monday afternoon, the list of the directors’ on the chamber’s website was blank.

Chamber Executive Director Jayson Gayne and Denis said in a meeting Monday that the idea for the promotion was hatched by the full chamber board of directors and was not a unilateral decision by any one person.

They would not say if there was a vote or what the tally of the vote was to promote the “Hunt for the Indian.”

Denis said she wanted Monday’s news to be “part of the solution” and that “pointing fingers” would not bring people together.

“It has been brought to our attention, and we do appreciate those who did bring it to our attention, that it was a culturally insensitive name. It came from a place of good intents,” Denis said. “We have certainly learned from this and will continue to learn as we provide people with the opportunity to share through the community forums.”

But Mantor, the vice chair, said in an interview that there was no vote on the “Hunt for the Indian” promotion by board members and she didn’t know about the promotion beforehand — undercutting the assertion that the full board of directors was involved.

“There wasn’t a vote on that,” she said by phone Monday afternoon. “I wasn’t aware of it until the promotion went out.”

Otherwise, Mantor and board member Works, who said he had missed a couple of meetings and did not weigh in on the promotion, said they would stand by what Gayne and Denis said Monday morning about the promotion.

“I don’t recall voting,” Works said. “I wasn’t in attendance at the last couple of board meetings. When it comes to this recent issue, I’m just going to stand behind what was issued by the chamber board.”

The Indian figurine that would have been used in the holiday promotion is much like the Elf on the Shelf promotion sponsored by Main Street Skowhegan.

MASCOT ISSUE RETURNS

Maulian Dana, a Penobscot woman from Indian Island who has spearheaded the local “Not Your Mascot” movement to get school officials to stop using the “Indians” nickname for high school sports teams, said Monday that the chamber promotion controversy might actually work to trigger a second look at the mascot issue by the school board.

She said the chamber’s pledge to hold community outreach events shows “some really good leadership.”

“I think it says that at the end of the day having an Indian mascot in your high school creates problems in your community because it’s offensive and derogatory and targets the racist people,” Dana said Monday by phone. “I think the chamber could have done this little game or promotion with some other special thing in the town — a wolf or another animal. The fact that it’s an Indian has a direct cause and effect. It’s all connected.”

Maulian Dana said the Langlais Indian sculpture near downtown Skowhegan has become a rallying point for another group called the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook group, which is closed to non-members and states it has 1,400 members. That group and others are holding fast to their belief that keeping the Indians mascot name is their heritage and their way of channeling the power and strength of the people who first settled on the banks of the Kennebec River, which runs through Skowhegan.

But Dana, whose father, Barry Dana, a Penobscot elder and former tribal chief, and other Native people disagree.

Francis, the chief of the Penobscot tribe, wrote in 2015 to the local school board that while “we understand that well-meaning folks truly believe they are honoring our people with these images, we do not feel honored and want their use to be discontinued.”

“Sports team mascots and other imagery … are offensive to and objectify Native people,” Francis wrote.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter:@Doug_Harlow