At its meeting Thursday night, the School Administrative District 54 board of directors will hear renewed debate about the appropriateness of the nickname “Indians” for sports teams at Skowhegan Area High School. The issue isn’t on the board’s agenda, but nonetheless it won’t be able to avoid for long a topic it last considered three years ago.

In 2015, the board vote 11-9 to keep the nickname, illustrating the divisions that then existed. Over three years, a lot has changed, especially in the statewide context in which this issue — like it or not — must be seen.

At one time, more than a dozen Maine high schools had a mascot or nickname that referred to or, in some cases, caricatured members of Maine’s Indian tribes. While undoubtedly a source of pride for many of these communities, they were equally a source of pain to the state’s Wabanaki peoples — a reminder of everything that European settlers took from them.

Finally, Maine is again paying attention to the inequitable treatment still visited upon its Indian tribes, despite the initial promise of the landmark Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980. Under the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, things got so bad that the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes did the previously unthinkable — they withdrew their representatives from the Legislature.

The Penobscot tribal member who would have been that legislative member, Maulian Dana, now carries the title of “ambassador,” and recently visited the SAD 54 school board to present the case that “Indians” should not continue to be used for sports teams.

During the Democratic primary race for governor, and in the just-concluded contest for attorney general, tribal issues were prominent in a way we haven’t seen in decades. It’s time for reconsideration and rethinking.

Clearly, the “Skowhegan Indians” nickname doesn’t refer to anyone now living in the area. Instead, it recalls a troubled past, one that’s still capable of leaving wounds that may not be visible, but are still deep.

Many of the Maine communities that found new names and symbols did so reluctantly and after considerable resistance, with resentment lingering for years. If the SAD 54 board views the issue through the lens of a contested and difficult past, that cycle will probably repeat itself.

There is another way. Names such as this one are as much about the present, and future, as they are about the past.

The hard truth — as we have come to know too well, whether the topic is slavery, the dispossession of tribes, or the mistreatment of countless immigrant groups — is that no great historical wrong can truly ever be righted. There can be better understanding, compensation and remediation, but those who suffered the most are no longer with us.

Instead, it makes much more sense to see the Skowhegan area for what it is today — a strikingly resilient community bucking the tide of economic loss and depopulation that has been afflicting rural Maine for the past two generations.

The giant Somerset Mill still dominates the skyline, and remains the economic engine for the area. Fortunately for Skowhegan, the plant’s owner, Sappi Global, is the one remaining buyer from the paper mill fire sales of the early 1990s that has maintained a full commitment to Maine.

Sappi has invested where others have disinvested, letting their plants run down, and the Somerset Mill still has a decent chance of operating for years to come, despite a hotly competitive global market. It has not gone the way of nearby Madison, and of Old Town and Bucksport, Millinocket and East Millinocket, all communities devastated by the sudden loss of their principal employers.

Skowhegan is still a strikingly busy place, one with so much traffic it has built a good case for a long-planned second downtown bridge. It has crafted innovative plans to boost downtown, and use of the scenic Kennebec River gorge. It is a town seeking to craft a new future for itself.

Seen in that light, finding a new nickname to replace one that, however anyone feels about it, will always given offense to many Mainers, can be seen as a real community-building activity. What does Skowhegan see in itself that could suggest a new name?

Morse High School in Bath still has its Shipbuilders. Houlton has its Shiretowners. Camden has its Windjammers. All of them fit in a way “Indians” does not.

It’s hard to let go of the past. But this time, perhaps, Skowhegan can see a way forward that honors its community, as well as those communities much larger than a single town or region.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.