SKOWHEGAN — Only residents of the school district and state legislators will be allowed to speak at a public hearing-style forum tonight on continued use of the Indian image and name “Indians” for high school sports mascots.

The decision is drawing criticism that the gathering will be one-sided, but others say it’s fair to give residents of School Administrative District 54 their chance to speak out. The forum is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday in the gymnasium at Skowhegan Area Middle School, off U.S. Route 2, west of downtown Skowhegan. The six towns of SAD 54 are Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

Brent Colbry, superintendent of School Administrative District 54, said school board members are “seeking input about the community residents’ feelings” on the issue and they won’t vote on the matter Monday night. He said the question facing the board is: “Should the district support or not support a change in the use the Indian nickname or seal?”

Colbry said the forum will be based on a legislative model in which people who want to speak can sign up and be called one by one to express their views; it will not be a debate. Speakers from both sides of the issue each will be given two minutes to talk, and guidelines by school officials aim to avoid repetition and offensive language.

Skowhegan is the only high school left in Maine with an Indian mascot — Wells and Nokomis have kept “Warriors” but dropped the Native American imagery — and Skowhegan school officials have been talking informally with tribal representatives for months about how to address the mascot question. Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes told a school board subcommittee on April 13 that the use of the word “Indians” is an insult to Native Americans, who long have suffered racial prejudice.

School board members, in setting the rules this week about who is allowed to speak, said members of Maine’s Wabanaki Indian federation had their say during the April 13 meeting.

Maulian Smith, a Penobscot woman who grew up and still lives and works on Indian Island, attended the April meeting and said she had hoped to continue, during open discussion Monday night, the “momentum and good will that we built in the initial meeting with the school board committee.” But upon hearing that only residents and legislators could speak, Smith said the restriction “sets up a very divisive atmosphere that has the potential to set us back and not be beneficial to anyone.”

“I am completely dismayed and disappointed that they went back on their word,” Smith said Friday. “They can’t call it a forum if it is one-sided. I was told that this is fair because the natives got a chance to voice their side and now the town will get a turn.”

But school board member Jennifer Poirier, of Skowhegan, who has been active on social media sites discussing the “Indians” issue, said she thinks it is fair to exclude nonresidents.

“I do believe it is fair,” she said Friday. “We held a meeting where the Native American representatives were afforded the opportunity to freely address the board, and now the community is being given that same opportunity.”

At the heart of the matter is using the name “Indians” as a sports mascot, a nickname or good luck charm. Members of the four Indian tribes of the Wabanaki federation want the name changed, saying they are people, not mascots. The president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP also formally asked school officials to stop using the mascot, calling it “deeply offensive to native people.”

At issue is not the town seal — an Indian spearing fish on the Kennebec River — or even the image of an Indian painted on the wall of the high school gymnasium, said Barry Dana, of Solon, former chief of the Penobscot Nation. Dana, Smith and others have said the problem with the Indians mascot for sports teams is that it objectifies their race.

Those in the Skowhegan area who support continued use of the name say it is an important school tradition and disagree with the Indian representatives, saying it is a way of respecting the people who lived for centuries on the banks of the Kennebec River. They say it is their heritage, that they were raised Skowhegan Indians.

Rob Washburn, a Skowhegan lawyer, Somerset County judge of probate and longtime youth football coach, said he feels strongly about keeping the Skowhegan Indians mascot. He said he agrees with the board’s decision to not include nonresidents in the Monday forum, noting that Skowhegan residents had to “sit on their hands” while the Native American group had their say at the school board subcommittee meeting on April 13.

Now it is time for “the other side of the issue” to have a say, Washburn said.

“It’s not just me,” Washburn said. “There are hundreds of thousands of other people who have gone to Skowhegan schools that feel the same as I do. I want to see the name retained. … I understand their position and I think they make good points. I just can’t get past my own feeling of tradition here in this. I grew up in this town. I’ve lived here my entire life.”

Dana, who will not be allowed to speak Monday night, said he will keep to his word and honor whatever decision the school board ultimately makes about the mascot and nickname. “From the start, I said I would respect the board’s protocols for dialogue,” he said.

Smith said Rep. Matthew Dana II, who represents the Passamaquoddy tribe in the Legislature, has agreed to attend Monday’s forum; but like the others, he will have just two minutes to speak. Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation said he is unable to attend.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he will try to attend the forum and has spoken to Rep. Henry J. Bear, of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, who said he is planning to attend.

McCabe said he does not plan to speak at the forum.

“It is a little disappointing that the conversation would be limited at the forum. This is an issue that has been talked about around the state,” McCabe said. “For me, right now, I’m just happy to see dialogue on the issue. Folks are raising good points on both sides.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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