SKOWHEGAN — A group including Native Americans who say they support the use of tribal imagery and nicknames in sports told supporters of the Skowhegan “Indians” name Sunday they are honored by it and that to encourage the disuse of the name is a disservice to Native American heritage.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here, but the words I’ve spoken with some people and the affinity you have for Native American heritage and culture, it’s centered around this school, and I see that as a very positive thing,” said Mark One Wolf Yancey, a member of the board of directors of the Native American Guardians Association. “We are one of the smallest minorities in our own land, and sadly, we have to depend on these names and images to keep us in the public eye.”

Yancey was one of four speakers from the controversial group, a nonprofit based in Virginia and North Dakota, to speak at the T&B Celebration Center to a group of about 20 people.

The event, which was by invitation only and welcomed only supporters of keeping the “Indians” name at Skowhegan Area High School, already had met with pushback from members of the local Native American community before Sunday.

The visit comes amid a years-long debate over whether to stop using the “Indians” name and Native American imagery at Skowhegan Area High School, the last high school in Maine to do so.

During the event, at least two people appeared to be turned away from coming in and a small group of protesters also gathered on public property at the end of the center’s driveway.

“They do not belong to this nation and they do not belong here telling the Wabanaki people what to do with unsightly mascots,” said Diana Owen, a member of Maine’s Wabanaki nation from Milo. “This is not their homeland. They need to go. We said no.”

Inside, Yancey and others from the North American Guardians Association, or NAGA, said they have traveled around the country since the group’s inception about five years ago encouraging high school, college and professional teams to retain Native American references and names for sports teams.

Eunice Davidson, president of NAGA and a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota, said her childhood growing up on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota and involvement in the fight for the University of North Dakota to keep its name of the “Fighting Sioux” led her to co-found the organization in 2014.

“For each school that falls prey to this movement (of eradicating names), it’s one more nail in the coffin of the American Indian,” Davidson said. “At this point the coffin is half-nailed, but there is still daylight.”

Many names and logos are still used at reservation schools, she said, noting there is a difference between “a mascot and a symbol or logo.”

School Administrative District 54 board member Derek Ellis, an opponent of the continued use of the term “Indian” to represent Skowhegan schools, gives his opinion Sunday in Skowhegan to members of the Native American Guardians Association. The group came to Skowhegan in support of continuing the tradition. From left are Eunice Davidson, Pretty Deer, Mark “One Wolf” Yancey and Breelyn Fay. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Davidson, Yancey and the two other speakers Sunday — Pretty Deer Eagleman, who grew up on the Spirit Lake reservation and now lives in Oregon; and Breelyn Fay, who is of Shawnee descent and from Illinois — said they see the use of Native American names and imagery as a way of preserving and promoting their culture in schools.

After a woman who tried to attend event about halfway through was turned away at the door, Fay said she was frightened for her young daughter in the audience.

“I’m sure that’s many of your thoughts, too, when the opposition starts attacking, is ‘Oh my God, my kids,'” Fay said. “I’m going through it in Illinois. I see the kids struggling out there. I grew up in Akron, Ohio, watching the Cleveland Indians; and I never gave a rat’s behind about that logo, and neither did my mother or grandfather.”

Fay said she encountered racism at the Catholic school she attended while growing up, but she never was offended by imagery or logos.

“You are all that stands between us and eradication in this state,” she said. “You guys, that’s all. Those in Maine who are part of ‘Not Your Mascot’ are attempting to revive the 1600s by trying to eradicate Native American culture where non-Natives have embraced it. It takes a gigantic pushback, and that’s why we’re here and why you are here.”

The private event was attended by four school board members: Todd Smith, Harold Bigelow, Derek Ellis and Jennifer Poirier, who is also the administrator of the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook page, which supports the name and helped organize and send out invitations for Sunday’s event.

Poirier said earlier in the week she thought the event did not violate Maine’s open meeting laws, and the reason it was private was that she did not want to see a debate unfold about whether the “Indians” name should stay or go.

Toward the end, Ellis, who supports changing the name, said “being the only guy in here who maybe feels a little different, I feel like I have to say something” and proceeded to read a statement in which he questioned the credibility of NAGA and its financial setup.

The group’s latest form 990 filing with Internal Revenue Services lists income of $50,000 or less in 2017.

“Yet you travel parts of the NAGA team around the country to speak,” Ellis said. “Where does this money come from?”

Members of the group said they often travel on their own dime and recently received a grant that has helped fund expenses.

Yancey, who said Sunday he is ethnically Chiricahua Apache but is not enrolled in any tribe, said he also has faced skepticism, including from members of the Native American community, for his support of the Washington, D.C., Redskins football team.

“I love children,” Yancey said Sunday. ” I think we are doing them a disservice to teach a child a lie: that a redskin is a bloody scalp. It should be criminal if we’re silencing the majority and not letting kids know a majority of Native Americans don’t mind this name. In fact, a majority of Native Americans accept this honor you’re giving us.”

After about an hour and a half of presentations from NAGA, those who gathered to listen spent a few minutes asking questions and talking with them.

Melissa Keister, of Norridgewock, said she has lived in the area her whole life, and as a child the name “Indians” inspired her to ask her grandparents about Native American history.

“It’s continuous education,” she said. “Having that name is what led me to start educating myself. That name was there, and so I asked, ‘What is this about?’ And that’s where my pride started.”

Meanwhile, outside, Owen, the member of Maine’s Wabanaki nation, criticized NAGA, saying the group has “an aggressive reputation” and is representing local indigenous people in a way they don’t want to be represented.

To do so violates the oral tradition of Native American people, she said.

“You speak for your own nation,” Owen said. “They have no right to be here to tell the Wabanaki what we should or shouldn’t have. It’s that simple.”

She also pointed to an image of a Native American headdress on a town of Skowhegan sign and said the image wasn’t accurate and doesn’t portray anything that would have been worn by Wabanaki.

“I don’t like it,” Owen said of the “Indians” name. “I  don’t like it at all.”

 

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


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