SKOWHEGAN —Gov.-elect Janet Mills was among those who weighed in Thursday in the debate over the nickname used by Skowhegan’s schools, urging board members to carefully consider Native Americans’ feelings as the community again grapples with whether to retire its Indians nickname.

Mills sent a letter to the School Administrative District 54 board before its regular meeting Thursday night. In it, she acknowledged that decisions like a proposed name change can be “difficult and emotional,” but said the Indians name has become “a source of pain and anguish” for Native Americans.

“I hope that that perspective is given weight in your deliberations this evening,” she wrote. “Changing your mascot does not change you as a people.”

More than 100 people attended the Thursday night meeting in the middle school cafeteria, some holding signs saying “Restore respect” and “Retire the mascot.” Others sat wearing black-and-orange “Skowhegan Pride” T-shirts and sweatshirts.

On one side are those who believe it should be up to the people being portrayed by nicknames, images and sports mascots to decide what’s offensive and what’s not. On the other is the 1,600-member Skowhegan Indian Pride group, which is proud of the Indians name and doesn’t see it as racist or offensive.

Before the meeting, Penobscot National Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana called Skowhegan’s mascot “harmful to the children in the school and indigenous children all over the state” and brought members of the Penobscot Nation Youth Council with her to illustrate her point.

In Mills’ letter, she tells local officials  that “it can be difficult to accept that a gesture of respect made in good faith could have the opposite of its intended effect,” and says that a community’s pride stems not from its symbol, but from its people.

A copy of Mills’ letter also was sent by email to Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador, and to the Morning Sentinel at a reporter’s request.

Dana, the founder of the Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter, Facebook group, said she brought members of the Penobscot Nation Youth Council with her Thursday night to help illustrate their point.

“This mascot is harmful to the children in the school and indigenous children all over the state; and by keeping it, the school board is being negligent in their duties,” Dana, daughter of one-time Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, said Thursday before the meeting. “Jennifer Poirier should recuse herself from any voting because she is leading the effort to keep the change, which is damaging to the children she is elected to protect and serve. We plan on taking measures to a state level, and this is the last chance for MSAD 54 to do the right thing.”

Dana told the school board in November that Skowhegan is the last high school in Maine still to use Native American imagery or names for its sports teams.

It’s time to retire the name, she said.

“We don’t want special rights. We want equal rights,” Dana has said.

The children in the Youth Council agreed.

“Your guys are only Indians for four years. We’re Indians for life,” said Skyler Lewey, 15, a student at Old Town High School and a member of the Youth Council. “We all grew up on the reservation, on Indian Island. We all know what racism is like. You say you celebrate the heritage and the culture, but you don’t. You don’t have socials, you don’t have ceremonies.”

The other group, calling itself Skowhegan Indian Pride in a closed Facebook group, is led by school board member Jennifer Poirier, who says that using the name “Indians” is done with respect, honoring the people who lived and fished along the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan.

It is not mocking or disrespectful, they say. They say the nickname is their tradition, their identity and their way of respecting Native Americans by channeling their strength and bravery in sports competition.

“In 2015, after a lengthy process of research, forums and discussion, a vote was taken to remain the Skowhegan Indians,” Poirier said before the meeting Thursday. “Unfortunately, neither the process nor the vote has been respected by those pushing for a change.”

Poirier said the current debate has been anything but civil. A police officer was stationed at the last board meeting because someone pressing to change the name posted an online threat to bring a hatchet to the meeting, she said.

Maulian Dana said, she, too, has been threatened and demeaned on the “Pride” Facebook page.

Both women said that objectionable posts on either of their Facebook pages were taken down as soon as they were discovered.

“The school board has much work to conduct during its meetings,” Poirier said. “It is not a public forum or a platform for public debate. I encourage people to be respectful of the school board and each other.”

Some members of the school board continue to say that the school dropped the mascot “running Indian” caricature and other images in 1990 after being asked to do so, but continues to use the name “Indians” because that’s who they are. They say the school board voted 11-9 to keep the name and that the case should be closed.

Several people were allowed to stand and address the school board Thursday night, including Judy York, who said they have respect for the people who were here before them.

“It’s a word,” York said. “It’s a name that represents our community, and we do take pride and honor in the name.”

Skowhegan graduate David Drake, who said he has a learning disability, noted that the Skowhegan Pride folks got him through school when nobody thought he would graduate.

“I believe in myself because of Skowhegan Pride,” he said.

Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes — all members of the umbrella Wabanaki federation in Maine — told a school board subcommittee in 2013 that the use of the word Indians is an insult to Native Americans. Members of the four Indian tribes want the name changed. They say they are people and people are not mascots.

Since that time, the Bangor office of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, with a church in Skowhegan, all have urged the school board to drop the name.

In her platform for the coming year, Mills said she will work with Maine’s Native American tribes to create jobs, bring broadband to the reservations, and work on expanding ecotourism and new industries.

“I will work to remove once and for all, offensive names for teams, schools and mascots that have no place in our modern-day society,” Mills wrote.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 called for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-native schools, saying that “references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping.”

Board Chairwoman Dixie Ring, of Canaan, said the district would hold an open panel forum on Jan. 8 or 9 to discuss the issue. In a show of hands vote by board members, even that question produced a divided vote, 12-7, in favor of the forum.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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