SKOWHEGAN — Directors of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 reserved next Thursday, March 7, for board members to have the chance to exchange their thoughts on what’s next for the Skowhegan “Indian” nickname used by high school sports teams.

Acting on the recommendation of SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry, directors agreed to “have a dialog” beginning at 7 p.m. that night and from there decide what action to take next. The vote was unanimous Thursday, but not all members voted.

Thursday night’s meeting of the board was packed with people from both sides of the issue, as meetings have been for months. Signs and placards supporting and opposing the name change were visible across the middle school cafeteria.

Board Chairwoman Dixie Ring, of Canaan, allowed three members from each side speak.

Zack Heiden, legal director with the Maine office of the American Civil Liberties Union, stood to tell the board that there once were nine school districts in Maine with Indian mascots or nicknames. Now there is just one — Skowhegan. He said if the district ends up in court, it is going be costly.

“I’m here tonight to ask you to retire the mascot,” Heiden told the board.

Kathy LeBrun, a resident who said her mother is full-blooded Passamaquoddy, said she thought the issue already had been settled to keep the nickname. She said she and her family are not offended by use of the word “Indians.”

Dwayne Tomah, a member of the Passamaquoddy nation, speaks in favor of not using an Indian as a mascot for SAD 54 schools during a school board forum in January. “This is hurtful and demeaning,” Tomah said. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

“The Penobscot ambassador does not speak for us,” she said, referring to Maulian Dana, who also was allowed to speak. “Remember my ancestors. Don’t wipe them out again.”

Skowhegan taxpayer Lisa Savage, who supports changing the mascot, and resident Sean Poirier, who wants to keep the name, also were allowed to speak, each for three minutes.

Use of the nickname “Indians” for Skowhegan Area High School sports teams has its supporters and its detractors, and debate has raged for nearly four years with no solution.

A closed Facebook group called Skowhegan Indian Pride and its followers, led by school board member Jennifer Poirier, say that using the name is done with respect, honoring the people who lived for generations along the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. It is not mocking or disrespectful, they say.

They say the nickname is not a sports mascot and that all of the cartoon imagery, feathers and warpaint was dropped years ago at the request of Maine Native Americans. Many also say it is an important school tradition.

Another group, a public Facebook page called Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter, lead by Penobscot Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana, of Indian Island, disagrees.

Gloria and Ken Gordon of Skowhegan hold a sign in favor of keeping the Indian mascot in SAD 54 during a school board meeting in January. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

“Your ‘Indian’ mascot is the last one of its kind in the state of Maine, which you share with five tribal reservation communities,” wrote Dana, daughter of one-time Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, of Solon, in a hand-delivered to the board in November. “Mascot use has been found to be harmful to children and creates an unhealthy learning environment as well as shaping their views of Indigenous people to be stereotypical and not based in reality which is problematic for their Indigenous peers and hinders their development,” she wrote.

Local supporters beg to differ.

Judi York, a vocal supporter of all things “Indians” in Skowhegan, said at a public forum attended by about 200 people in January that her ancestry is French and Viking and she takes no offense at French names for towns or Viking images.

“Skowhegan and Norridgewock are both Indian names. I’m proud to be from this town,” York said. “I’m tired of people from other towns, states or countries telling me what words I can use. It’s a word, not a mascot. It’s used in pride, not as a put down.”

York said she and others want to keep alive the original people of the area and that dropping the name would lead to them being forgotten and ignored.

Outside groups have weighed in on the debate all along, including a visit on Sunday by an out-of-state group supporting the Indians name who say they support the use of tribal imagery and nicknames in sports. The group, Native American Guardians Association, told supporters of the Skowhegan “Indians” name they are honored by it and encouraged Skowhegan Indian Pride members to continue to honor Native American heritage.

On the other side of the debate, the staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sent a letter in December to the school board chairwoman and the superintendent urging them to “do the right thing” and drop the “Indians” nickname.

In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association publicly called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots” because they teach “misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians.”

Members of SAD 54’s education policy program committee, back row, listen to representatives of the Wabanaki federation who want Skowhegan schools to cease using an American Indian as a sports mascot during a meeting in Skowhegan in 2015. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

The chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, also wrote a letter to the SAD 54 board of directors, asking the district to discontinue the use of Indians as the Skowhegan Area High School mascot.

The church was echoing the Bangor chapter of the NAACP, which in 2015 asked the district to drop the nickname.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills also has weighed in, encouraging the SAD 54 board to discontinue use of the nickname.

In her campaign platform, 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.

In April 2015, a month before the SAD 54 board voted 11-9 to keep the nickname, 10 representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac Indian tribes — the Wabanaki federation — the federally recognized name for Maine’s four tribes meaning People of the Dawnland, addressed a school board subcommittee. One by one, each of the tribal representatives spoke about SAD 54’s education policy program committee, saying that being an “Indian” does not mean being a sports mascot.

Most recently, Rep. Benjamin T. Collings, D-Portland, has sponsored a bill that would ban use of such nicknames or mascots. The bill, LD 944, has been referred to the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. There are several co-sponsors of the bill, titled An Act To Ban Native American Mascots in All Public Schools.

The bill would prohibit a public school in Maine from having or adopting a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school.

“No public hearing has been set yet,” Collings said in an email Thursday to the Morning Sentinel. “We would, if possible, like Skowhegan to make the change on their own.”

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

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