I am a graduate of Skowhegan High School, class of ’98. I wasn’t the greatest student or an over-zealous supporter of the football team. Nonetheless, the Indian mascot, out of all things, was something I understood.

The town is named “Skowhegan.” — an Indian word. I dug up arrowheads at Lake George. Indians came into schools to tell stories and perform music. It went without being said that Skowhegan’s wooden Indian and the high school mascot were ways that townspeople showed respect for Native Americans.

I moved to Seattle years ago, but I still read the Morning Sentinel sometimes to touch base. Controversy about the mascot inspired me to write this even though I’m 3,000 miles away.

I spoke with Maulian Smith, who wants Skowhegan Senior High School to get a new mascot. Her position is that Indian mascots are “racist” and “discriminatory,” with no exceptions.

What about the Red Cloud Crusaders in North Dakota, who have an Indian mascot riding a horse and wielding a spear? Or the Navajo Pine Warriors of New Mexico, who feature an Indian wearing a headdress astride a horse?

What these schools have in common is that the student body is predominantly Indian. Is Skowhegan High’s mascot racist because the school has a predominantly white student body?

Political correctness is easily confused as being a real civil rights movement. The modern PC debate has a way of giving attention to the most vitriolic and polarizing opinions. Reasonable people don’t want to be called “racists,” so they disengage. Less vocal Indians may feel as though making such petitions and invoking the charge of racism creates animosity. The debate is usually between the professionally offended against those who just like to troll.

Smith has a point: Offensive team mascots should change. What’s important, however, is being able to differentiate between corporate-designed caricatures of Indians, like the Cleveland Indian, verses sincere attempts to respect a local culture.

Conversely, having a mascot in homage of a history/culture also means that the school must bear additional scrutiny. Stereotypes should be policed. Maybe Skowhegan needs to step up on teaching local history. It would have been more constructive to both the school and to Indians in Maine if Smith started a petition to get native art in the school lobby, or for more native guest speakers. The real casualty here would be to draw a line through genuine attempts to respect Indian people in public space.

Matt Richardson lives in Seattle, but he grew up in Skowhegan.

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