SKOWHEGAN — The disconnect was apparent Saturday between people who are proud of the tradition of using “Indians” as a mascot for high school sports teams and American Indians who say use of the images and names is offensive and want it to change.

A table was set up Saturday at Skowhegan Area High School to gather petition signatures in support of keeping the Indian mascot. The petition drive took place amid the 39th annual Fun and Business Fair in the school gymnasium under a basketball hoop and in front of the image of a feathered Indian spearing fish in the Kennebec River.

Zachary Queenan, 17, a Skowhegan senior and track and field athlete, said he paid for the table and the petition forms to get his message out to residents and community leaders.

“My objective is to give people a voice, because if I don’t, who will? They need to be heard,” Queenan said as people filed by the table, many stopping to sign the petition. “I believe that will be enough to help the town to decide, the entire town voting like at a town meeting and having people available to speak their minds. I’m giving people a voice.”

Barry Dana, of Solon, the former chief of the Penobscot Nation, and others in the state, including Ed Rice, adjunct instructor for the New England School of Communications at Husson University and the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, along with the Greater Bangor National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have said that the Indian image used by Skowhegan as a sports mascot should be removed. Such images and mascots already have been changed at many schools in Maine and elsewhere across the nation as awareness has grown.

Those in the Skowhegan area supporting the mascot say it is a way of respecting the people who lived for centuries on the banks of the Kennebec River, which runs through Skowhegan. Many also say it is an important school tradition.

“This place was founded on the Indians. If I was an American Indian, I wouldn’t be offended,” said John Grohs, a Skowhegan resident and member of the town’s budget and finance committee, as he signed the petition Saturday. “If they called them the Skowhegan Indian jerks, that would be one thing. They’re bringing recognition to them. They haven’t forgotten them.”

At the FAB Fair, a series of exhibits by area businesses that filled much of the school, other attendees — mostly older people with children and grandchildren — appeared to agree, saying you can’t take the Indian out of Skowhegan; and if you did, you might as well change the name of the town, an Abnaki word meaning “a place to watch.”

“I don’t think it’s dishonoring them. I think it’s actually honoring them by having their name,” Ann Marie Towle said. “We carry on their name, and I think it’s honoring the Indians — the native Americans — so I think they should be proud that somebody’s keeping their name.”

Towle said she really has not given much thought to Dana and others’ point of view — that Indians are people, not mascots, and that many hundreds of thousands of native people died as a result of European settlement.

“I never really thought of that,” she said. “I grew up here. I went to school here.”

Queenan said the Indians who died as a result of disease and extermination at the hands of white people all lived in a different time.

“That wasn’t me,” he said. “That was so many years ago. That was not this time, and it’s a totally different feeling. They were not respected then, and we are trying to appreciate them as a people. After those horrible, horrible things that happened, I think it would be more disrespectful not to show that we respect who they are as a people and honor them in this way.”

He said the School Administrative District 54 community should come together to keep Skowhegan’s team name the Indians, with the town seal retaining the image that appears on the gymnasium wall at the high school. SAD 54 consists of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

He said he plans to deliver the petition signatures to the SAD 54 board of directors.

Debate about use of American Indian names as sports mascots and nicknames was made public locally in an article that appeared in the Morning Sentinel in May.

Discussions between Dana and SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry continued into November, when Colbry said the school board would sit down with Dana and other tribal leaders in January to see what direction to go.

In a letter dated Feb. 9, accompanied by copies of a petition, Bangor NAACP President Michael Alpert said his organization is dedicated to “universal civil rights and to the eradication of all forms of racism” — including use of the Indian mascot, which he called a symbol of racism.

A week later, Colbry told Dana that their meeting would have to be postponed because of media attention to the issue.

Representatives of the state’s Wabanaki — the four tribes that make up Maine’s Indian population — fired back Feb. 17, saying resistance to the change from the Skowhegan community comes from a misunderstanding of what the image means to the tribes, and they hope to “foster a spirit of understanding.”

Queenan created a Facebook page, “Keep Skowhegan the Indians,” on Feb. 9, the same day the Morning Sentinel reported on the Bangor NAACP letter. It had generated more than 3,160 “likes” by Saturday. Queenan said his petition Saturday generated 217 signatures, with another 500 or so in an online petition.

Of the 22 school board members who were sent emails by the Morning Sentinel for comment on the issue last week, only three replied, each saying they wanted to wait until the board could address the matter. Their next meeting is scheduled for March 5.

The Skowhegan Board of Selectmen is scheduled to discuss the issue at its regular meeting Tuesday night in the Town Office. That meeting is set to begin at 5:30 p.m.

Cory King, executive director of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the FAB Fair, said his group has not taken an official position on the matter.

“I’d love to sit down and hear from the other sides so I can fully understand it, because whatever comes as a result of this, I want to help get the word out why the decision was made,” King said.

Colbry has said the American Indian imagery goes beyond the school and encompasses the town of Skowhegan and the history and heritage of the region.

Others, including Tammy Steuber, who said she was born and raised in Skowhegan, agreed with Colbry on Saturday, saying she wants to be part of a meeting to hear what the Indian representatives have to say about their sacred symbols and images and why they can’t be shared as a matter of pride.

“All through school we were taught to be proud to be named after the Indians,” she said. “I respect what (American Indians) are saying; I just don’t understand why now, after decades and decades and decades of having the name, why wasn’t this done many years ago. I absolutely respect how they feel. I certainly don’t want to disrespect them or make them feel that we’re dishonoring them.

“I think we should have a forum. I guess I would want to know why they feel it’s disrespectful.”

One woman, Kathleen O’Connor, who grew up in Skowhegan and now lives in Winslow, said she wouldn’t sign the petition Saturday.

“Seeing the Skowhegan Indian was a good part of my heritage growing up, but I feel we need to hear from Native Americans as to why they feel it’s insensitive to them,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s a valid point, so I won’t sign it. As much as I feel I’m a Skowhegan Indian, I wouldn’t do that because Native Americans probably have some very valid points why they don’t see it as a pride thing like we do.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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