SKOWHEGAN — A rally of Wabanaki people and other supporters of retiring the Indians sports mascot at Skowhegan Area High School was mostly quiet Thursday night, but there was no doubt that two opposing camps were present during Moonlight Madness, a part of Skowhegan’s annual six-day River Fest.

Maulian Smith, a member of the Penobscot tribe, organized the rally. She said the purpose of the gathering was to show support for Skowhegan area residents who want to change what she called the last racist and offensive Maine high school mascot. Smith lives and works on Indian Island in Penobscot County,

Smith, along with her father, Barry Dana, of Solon, the former chief of the Penobscot nation, and others stood around tables with printed educational material as Moonlight Madness roared around them.

Later, about 20 people stood in a circle, passing a drum baton — a talking stick — and expressing their feelings on the sensitive issue, which has turned ugly in the past year.

When it was his turn to speak, Dana said the important part of Thursday’s gathering was to educate people that’s it’s not OK to first steal someone’s land, and then steal their heritage.

“It’s not a good thing for us to always have to explain to our children and then our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren why (Skowhegan teams) call themselves Indians,” Dana said. “That’s not how we’re honored. We still stand here seeking a relationship, seeking understanding, seeking a correct course of action, because we owe it to our children and our grandchildren.”

Supporters of keeping the nickname and mascot attended Moonlight Madness wearing T-shirts proclaiming “I bleed orange & black — Skowhegan Indian pride,” but none stopped to talk to the group, though one man did shout his opposition while Dana was speaking.

Jennifer Poirier, a member of the Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 school board, who in May was one of 11 on the board voting to keep the name, wore the T-shirt, as did her husband. She said there was no need to stop and debate something that’s been debated for months.

“That booth is for their supporters and they have every right to protest, rally, demonstrate, whatever you want to call it,” Poirier said. “That’s fine, but we have our right to walk around and do our community part as well. We’re not looking for any kind of conflict. We want everybody to stay respectful, and everybody has a right to their own opinion.”

One man, Ron Gordon, disagreed while Dana was talking and shouted at him.

“I’ve got as much right to speak as that man does,” Gordon said loudly. “He wants to misguide you. He has no business running off his mouth about the Indians. This landmark is an honor to the Indians to be named Skowhegan Indians. The name will never change.”

Smith, who is human resources director at Penobscot Indian Nation Enterprises/Federal Program Integrators, said earlier Thursday she received some threatening messages before Thursday’s rally saying she’s not wanted in Skowhegan and that she “should be careful.”

“But I’ve also had a lot of encouraging messages, saying not to let that deter me,” she said.

Other than Gordon, there was no other disruption.

The issue of removing the Indians mascot and nickname from Skowhegan Area High School, the last high school in the state to have it, has been a contentious one, reaching a peak in May when the The School Administrative District board voted 11-9 to keep the nickname and mascot.

Letters have been sent by tribal leaders to the state commissioner of education and to members of the state Board of Education, to the SAD 54 board and to the Maine Press Association.

The letters say the same thing: Please stop using the word “Indians” when referring to Skowhegan Area High School sports teams.

She said one purpose of the rally is to show support for those in the Skowhegan area who would like to see the name retired.

Doctors, lawyers, educators and business leaders have called on the school district to drop the name because it offends the very people it is meant to honor — Maine’s Indian tribes.

Others in the community, including many SAD 54 board members, are holding fast to their belief that keeping the Indians mascot name is their heritage and what they say is 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.

“We are Skowhegan Indians,” they say.

Neither side is budging in the debate, which in the last year has featured accusations of racism, insults and intimidation. Members of Maine’s tribes say use of the name and related images are an insult to their heritage and an affront to the history of the region where tribal members were slaughtered and forced to move from their ancestral home so white Europeans could settle the land and enjoy the abundance it offered.

Smith said earlier Thursday she was “pleasantly surprised” at the amount of people who spoke in favor of the cause at a public hearing in May at which the school board barred her from speaking because she’s not a resident of one of SAD 54’s member towns.

Smith started the Facebook page Notyourmascot Maine Chapter after a yearlong effort by her and others to convince the SAD 54 board to change the name to something less offensive.

She stressed on the Facebook page that Thursday’s event “will focus on the positive and beautiful things that make us indigenous people, not mascots.”

“This is not confrontational, and we will not be disruptive or disrespectful,” she said on Facebook. “This is a great opportunity to publicly show what indigenous people really are all about, and we are not mascots.”

Others who showed up Thursday to support Smith and the bid to educate people on the adverse affects of using people as sports mascots said the debate has been ongoing since the early 1990s.

“I’ve talked to people on the school board years ago and tried to explain to them what this was all about, and I came tonight to support this because I believe in it,” said Mike Walton, of Clinton, a “metis,” or person of mixed Indian and European blood. “You say you’re honoring the people. We are the people and we don’t feel honored.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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