SKOWHEGAN — A group that seeks to preserve the use of Native American names in schools is scheduled to speak Sunday afternoon to a private group in support of keeping the “Indians” nickname in School Administrative District 54.

The North Dakota-based Native American Guardian’s Association says it works with schools across the country to “preserve their Native themed identities as a means to promote awareness and education about Indian history and heritage,” according to the group’s website.

Jennifer Poirier, a school board member and supporter of keeping the “Indians” nickname for sports teams, said the group contacted her several months ago saying they were going to be on the East coast in February and were interested in coming to Skowhegan.

Residents in the Skowhegan-based school district have for years been debating whether to get rid of the name, which critics, including members of Maine’s Penobscot Nation, have said is racist and offensive to Native Americans. Supporters of keeping the name say its use is respectful and part of the area’s history.

“It’s not anything I solicited,” said Poirier, who is also the founder of the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook page, a closed group supporting the nickname. “They heard about (the debate over the nickname) through other news reports and reached out to Skowhegan Indian Pride.

“They’re actually doing some things in (Washington, D.C.) this week, so they were going to be on the east coast and asked if they could come speak. I’m just kind of the instrument for getting them set up with a time and place. They’ve spoken all over the country.”

The event, which will take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at T&B’s Celebration Center in Skowhegan, is by invitation only, Poirier said. Those invited include supporters of keeping the Indians name, all school board members and school administrators. The Morning Sentinel has also been invited to cover the event.

“It’s not open to the public,” Poirier said. “This is not a debate going on. This is something where they’re coming to support the people who support the name. We’re not looking for any conflict with those who want to change the name.”

Maulian Dana, a tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and supporter of changing the name, criticized the event Tuesday, calling it a “racist echo chamber.” She said there will likely be protesters, though she was not sure if she would be among them for safety reasons.

“It’s a very desperate and sad move that Skowhegan Indian Pride is doing,” Dana said. “I think it’s unethical of Jennifer Poirier as a school board member to bring this group into the community. It’s ironic they call indigenous people of Maine outsiders and say we can’t come in and tell them what to do, but they’re willing to bring this out-of-state group in that they really don’t know that much about to prop up their message.”

In a Facebook post Monday, Dana also wrote the group is “full of pretendians, people accepting bribes to say they like mascots, and they are funded with deep pockets of those looking to keep the Washington football team racial slur.”

Andre Billeaudeaux, a board member of the Native American Guardian’s Association, which also goes by the acronym NAGA, said in an email the group “is not funded by the NFL” but would not say if it is affiliated with Mark One Wolf Yancey, who has claimed to be of the Apache tribe but whose lineage has been questioned after he became an outspoken advocate for the Washington, D.C., Redskins name.

Sherri Mitchell, an indigenous rights attorney in Maine, also called the group “fake Indians” on Facebook and said in a post Monday: “This group is comprised of paid actors who were hired by the Washington Redskins to promote Native American mascots. They do not speak for Native American people, but for profit. They were also hired by the Covington Catholic School to provide deceptive optics to their cause.”

Mitchell did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment late Tuesday afternoon. Billeaudeaux said her post “is so hostile to the truth as to make any reasonable or formal and open visit to Maine very difficult.”

He said it is one reason he supports the event not being open to the public, although the group does want their message to be heard by all residents in SAD54. The district includes the communities of Skowhegan, Canaan, Mercer, Smithfield, Norridgewock and Cornville.

Eunice Davidson, president of NAGA, is scheduled to be one of at least three people the group is bringing to Maine, including Tony Henson and Pretty Deer Flower Eagleman, who are also members of the group’s leadership team.

A member of the Spirit Lake tribe in North Dakota, Davidson also gave an interview in January to conservative radio host Bill Cunningham in which she defended the use of the word “redskins” and the actions of a group of Covington Catholic High School students who engaged in a standoff with Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips outside the Lincoln Memorial.

“I saw this man as forcing an issue on this boy,” Davidson said in the interview. “This was a young boy. He probably doesn’t know our culture at all, and the older gentleman, being disrespectful that he was, the way he went right in there pounding the drum in the boy’s face, to me that was very radical.”

In Skowhegan, Billeaudeax said his group plans to talk about national trends when it comes to the use of Native American names, the politics behind name changes and issues in the past, such as when the University of North Dakota opted in 2010 to retire its “Fighting Sioux” nickname.

“One of the few ways we can insist on schools maximizing the Native American footprint is when they have a Native American theme,” he said. “Anyone who graduates from Skowhegan should be thought of as an ambassador of Native American history. Instead of reducing the Native American footprint, we’d like to see it turned the other way.”

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act requires that public notice be given for all proceedings of government bodies or agencies of three or more members, but an attorney for the Morning Sentinel said it wasn’t clear whether the event Sunday would constitute official school board business, although all school board members are invited to come to the discussion.

The act prohibits “clandestine meetings, conferences or meetings held on private property without proper notice and ample opportunity for attendance by the public,” but Sig Schutz, an attorney for Preti Flaherty in Portland, said in his view attendance at conferences, speeches and events organized by third parties and social or community gatherings do not constitute government meetings.

However, he also cautioned that public bodies holding meetings should err on the side of caution and avoid any private discussion of public business among three or more members.

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said the district and school board are not involved in organizing the event.

“The school board has no role in it,” Colbry said. “I don’t know who is invited. It’s a private activity, so I don’t know what to say.”

Skowhegan Area High School is currently the only school left in Maine that continues to use Native American imagery and the “Indians” nickname for its sports teams, though it got rid of its Indian mascot around 1990.

In addition to local debate, Gov. Janet Mills, who took office in January, has also encouraged the SAD 54 school board to drop the name, saying in a letter in December the Indians name has become “a source of pain and anguish” for Native Americans.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
[email protected] 
Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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