FOURTH OF JULY. Fireworks, hot dogs, parades, sunburns, beauty pageants, fun in the sun.

American flags. Lots and lots of American flags.

We love our symbols.

But, face it, the flag is just a piece of cloth, and the reality behind it is what’s important.

America’s still a fairly young country — 239 years old on Saturday, if you count the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the moment of birth — and like a lot of youngsters, it’s continually reinventing itself as it grows and learns.

As the past several weeks show, both nationally and in Maine, that’s a struggle.


We want so much to be the country of democracy and inclusion. The country that’s “free” and lives the dream of everyone being equal.

When we wave the flag and celebrate the Fourth of July, that’s what we’re celebrating, right?

But in reality, a lot of our struggle over the past couple of centuries has to do with the instinct to draw lines, protect what we see as us, and to redefine what America and to be an American is. OK, maybe not redefine, but clarify.

It’s easy to be oblivious to what’s painful to others and frustrated that their America isn’t our America. So that struggle to define ourselves is constantly inching forward, then jumping back as we try to heal divisions, both new and old.

In America, that’s how we roll.

We didn’t quite get it right when the first colonists came ashore hundreds of years ago.


We didn’t treat the people who were already here very well. No one is going to dispute that now, all these years later.

But when it comes to having respect for the insults heaped on them over the years, we still get all tangled up in what the vision of our own America is.

Harold Bigelow, who won a seat on the School Administrative District 54 school board in May on the strength of keeping the “Indians” mascot and name at Skowhegan Area High School, told the Morning Sentinel last week that “as long as they continue, I’ll continue.

“I believe that there is nothing they won’t try.”

“They” are presumably the members of Maine’s Indian tribes who are trying to get the district to change to a less offensive mascot.

Bigelow added, “I think that they have enough problems on the reservation and in their own lives. Why are they pursuing this?”


Others in the community have said it’s about their community, and “outsiders” shouldn’t be able to “take away their heritage.”

“It’s about banding together,” Nicole Ferrara, of Waterville, a 2008 Skowhegan High School graduate told the Morning Sentinel in May.

There’s an irony to the remarks of those who support the “Indians” name that they probably don’t recognize.

But no doubt it’s clear to members of Maine’s Wabanaki federation, which comprises the state’s four tribes, and also to most non-Indians who feel shame and embarrassment that this is still an issue.

A bigger issue is that Bigelow and others who won’t let go of the mascot don’t seem to realize that there are also non-Indians who back its removal, and that it’s not just limited to what those who have the school flag proudly believe.

Ed Rice, a Husson University professor and author of a book about Louis Sockalexis, the original Cleveland Indian, got the most recent ball rolling to remove the mascot about a year ago.


He has pointed out that when issues regarding minorities being stomped on are resolved, it’s largely because people “outside the circle” of the group that’s being marginalized get involved.

The same is true for the Confederate battle flag controversy raging in South Carolina recently.

The issues with that flag have been there for decades. While it was prevalent in the South since the Civil War, it was trotted out with gusto during the segregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s. There is really no mistake about what it symbolizes.

In 1990, right-thinking people managed to get it removed from the top of the South Carolina State House to a spot nearby. But it never got completely removed, and the state has a law that makes the Legislature the authority that would decide whether to remove it.

It’s heartbreaking and appalling that, after all those decades, it took nine deaths to make mainstream white America recognize what many have been saying for decades.

History tells us that those supporting the Confederate battle flag, as well as Bigelow, Ferrara, and others who cling to outdated and offensive symbols and traditions, eventually will not get their way.


One of the biggest mistakes people who want to exclude make is that it’s an “us and them” issue. This is America; aren’t we all “us”?

As the cartoon character Pogo said, though, 40 years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It’d be nice to turn that around. And we will, but not soon. Common sense and maybe even the knowledge that comes from shame will slowly erode the arguments that drive those fights.

It’s not easy, because we like slogans. We like “heritage” and “tradition” no matter how offensive or downright painful it may be to our brother and sister Americans.

What we really need to like and respect is us — all of us and what we stand for as Americans.

Look at what happened last week, when we actually experienced that unity.


When the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage a reality across the nation, the country went on a wild, rainbow-colored joy spree.

Saturday, when we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let’s try to remember its spirit.

That we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they have certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The 56 well-to-do white men who signed that document wouldn’t have conjured up the Skowhegan Indian controversy, or Confederate battle flag one, or definitely the gay marriage battle. Or even the recent Winslow pageant brouhaha.

But they set in motion a process that gives us the power to deal with those things in the same spirit they would.

This week there was a smaller, less symbolic fight in Winslow, the one over who won the Winslow Miss 4th of July pageant.

Kevin Douglass, director of Winslow’s four-day event, said it best, even though the battle is tiny compared to the others that we fight daily.

“The best way is for the two young ladies to share the Miss 4th pageant queen and work together throughout the year to show unitedness,” Douglass said Tuesday. “That’s really part of what the Fourth is all about, is showing how us as Americans pull together and support each other.”

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at Twitter: @mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.

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