SKOWHEGAN — Sports teams and students in School Administrative District 54 will continue to identify themselves as the “Indians” after the school board voted against changing the nickname Thursday, but some school officials and name-change advocates say the issue is not over and agree that more education should happen.

The district’s 23-member school board narrowly voted to reject dropping the use of the word “Indians” following months of debate on the issue. The tribes say nicknames and mascots such as “Indians” and imagery related to Native Americans are derogatory and disrespectful and should be removed from schools and sports teams. But many people in the school district say the Indians name is representative of local heritage and is an important school tradition intended to honor Native Americans.

The board’s decision to vote Thursday came as a surprise to some, including Barry Dana, of Solon, the former chief of the Penobscot Nation, one of the four tribes that make up the Wabanaki federation. Dana said was disappointed with the outcome and thought the process was rushed leading up to the vote, which was held less than a month after two public meetings about the issue.

“It’s a highly emotionally charged issue,” SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said Friday. “Obviously people are very passionate on both sides, and I think they wanted some resolution on it. I don’t think they wanted it to linger on.”

Dana said he plans to redirect his energy to national efforts to end the use of Native American names and imagery as sports mascots. SAD 54 is one of two school districts in Maine to retain a nickname that invokes Native American heritage.

“I’m really big on process,” Dana said. “I would not expect a full 23-member board to all be able to fully comprehend the entire situation based on the amount of time we’ve had in this process for education. The whole process was cut short. I never advocate jumping to making a decision until all the information is presented.”


The SAD 54 school board is made up of 23 members, although there is one vacancy, and two members — Jessie Roderick, of Skowhegan, and Roger Stinson, of Norridgewock — were absent at Thursday’s vote.

Stinson said Friday that he would have voted against changing the name. “I was called by a lot of townspeople and I’ve talked to a lot of people,” he said. “It was 11-9, and it would have been 12-9 if I’d been there.”

Roderick could not be reached for comment.

Under the district’s weighted voting system, which weights board member votes according to the population of the towns they represent, the motion technically was defeated 482-391. Most of the votes against changing the name came from board members outside Skowhegan: The votes were 315 yes and 212 no among Skowhegan board members, and 46 yes and 281 no from members in other district towns.


Liz Anderson, chairwoman of the school board, said Friday the board’s decision to take a vote came from mounting pressure from the public and the need for the board to move ahead with other work, such as the 2015-2016 budget. Anderson, who voted in favor of changing the nickname, said she thinks the issue will come up again.


“I feel like at this point we’ve done everything we were supposed to do,” Anderson said. “We listened to both sides intently, we checked into the legalities of everything and we went through the democratic process.”

Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes — all members of the umbrella Wabanaki federation in Maine — told a school board subcommittee April 13 that the use of the word “Indians” is an insult to them. Members of the four tribes, as well as the Bangor NAACP and others in the state, want the name changed, saying the tribes are people and people are not mascots.

At a forum Monday attended by more than 60 people, the school board allowed district residents and state legislators to speak for up to two minutes each about the issue.

Several board members spoke Thursday night about the dozens of emails and phone calls they’d received, as well as some threats — that they wouldn’t be re-elected for voting a certain way, that the school budget would be rejected or that the recently refurbished Bernard Langlais Indian sculpture, an icon in downtown Skowhegan, would be harmed.

“There was a lot of pressure from both sides on the issue,” Colbry said. “I think the board was very plain about that themselves. I can’t second-guess what they decided to do.”

Valerie Coulombe, a board member and a supporter of the Indians nickname, is so adamant in her position that her home voicemail is set up with a message supporting the name and asking those who do not to not call back. She said the board faced pressure from both sides that made it hard to come to a decision.


“In the end I listened to what the students asked me to do,” said Coulombe, whose daughter is a senior at Skowhegan Area High School. She said she received many emails, text messages and phone calls from students supporting the name. “It’s who we are. That’s who we associated with growing up; it’s just part of us. I made the decision based on what I felt and what the kids wanted me to do, because ultimately I work for them.”

As a board member who voted against the name change, Coulombe said she has been the target of name-calling and hateful comments following the vote.

“I wish people would stop calling us names. I read some of the comments on the websites this morning, follow-ups to the story, and some of them were nasty. I’m not a racist. I’m not all these evil things people are calling me. It’s just not fair,” she said.

Anderson said she thought the board was prepared for Thursday’s vote and other steps that could have been taken. Some residents suggested holding a public referendum vote on the nickname, which would only be advisory and still leave it to the school board to decide.

Anderson said she hoped there would be no animosity shown toward any board members on either side of the vote.

“Everybody that was there has sat through countless meetings, read countless emails and was addressed by legal consultants,” she said. “We’ve done our homework.”


Dana said he was very encouraged by the nine board members who voted for changing the name.

“I’m contending that the people who want change are the majority; they just weren’t the majority of the 20-person school board last night,” he said.


Dana plans to continue fighting for a change to the use of the Indians name, even if his immediate attention turns away from Skowhegan.

“I’m a little burnt out with the local effort right now,” he said. “I think I want to enjoy my house, and I think the kids need to enjoy their graduation, so I think it’s OK to take a deep breath and just relax.”

In Maine, Dana has been involved in efforts to change the mascots and names in Old Town (formerly the Indians and now the Coyotes) and Newport, where the American Indian image has not been dropped entirely, but has been incorporated along with other images into a kind of coat of arms to represent the Warriors name.


“I don’t think it will come up immediately, but I think eventually it will come by the board again, because we are the last school in the state of Maine that holds the Indian name,” said Jane Arthur, the board member who made the motion to change the name Thursday night. “The Native Americans we’ve spoken with have told us that this is a quest they’re on and they will continue with it. They were very polite and nice about it, but said they would hopefully work with us until all the schools no longer use the name.”

In addition to Skowhegan, Wells High School, which is part of the Wells-Ogunquit Central School District, is known as the Warriors and has been in the process of phasing out Native American imagery, although Wells Town Manager Jonathan L. Carter said recently that the imagery remains in place.

Because the word “Indians” encompasses all Native American tribes, it is a national issue, Dana said, and that is where he’ll be turning his attention for now. For example, criticism and pressure continue to mount over changing the names of prominent professional sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins (National Football League) and the Cleveland Indians (Major League Baseball).

“It doesn’t just refer to my tribe; it refers to all tribes,” Dana said. “There are many pro teams, college and high school teams, still perpetuating this, this deed of wrongness. That needs to be looked at. I think it needs to go above now. We gave the local people their opportunity.”


In April, when tribal representatives from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes met with a school board subcommittee to discuss changing the nickname, the meeting was a good start but “not anywhere near sufficient,” according to Dana.


“We really should have had a meeting with the full board, and it should have been done in the eyes of the community,” he said. “That’s a very important piece that’s missing.”

“There was no discourse, no communication,” Dana added. “It was like, ‘I’m saying this and you guys have to be quiet.’ That’s no way to communicate. Communication is when both people can talk, ask questions and respond to each other.”

He said he discussed with Colbry an educational piece for students — an opportunity for them to sit down with members of the Penobscot tribe and directly speak with them — but it never happened.

“Students were never brought into the discussion other than through hearsay — ‘I talked to a student and they don’t want to change’ or ‘I talked with a student and they do want change,'” Dana said. “That’s not good enough.”

In their regular curriculum, SAD 54 students already learn about Native American history, Anderson said, adding that the state requires them to do so. At one point there was a motion before the board to have a public meeting similar to the subcommittee meeting with the Native Americans, but the motion was voted down, Anderson said.

“We talked about the education piece and I spoke about that publicly several months ago, but that’s not the direction (we took),” Colbry said Friday. “I’m not saying that could never happen, but the process that has unfolded here in the time frame it’s happened just hasn’t allowed more of that to happen yet.”


Coulombe said the school board as a group would be interested in pursuing more Native American education in the SAD 54 schools. Dana said he is still open to an educational forum and would be willing to engage with the Skowhegan community if they want to take the initiative to bring the issue up again.

“I’d like to see the Indians continue to work with the school and come in and do the education pieces, teach them their traditions and their ways and teach them the history,” Coulombe said. “That would be great. That’s what they wanted.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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