SKOWHEGAN  — The School Administrative District 54 Board of Directors voted 14-9 Thursday night to “respectfully retire” the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the district.

With weighted votes from each of the six SAD 54 towns, the vote was 558 favoring change and 441 against it.

“It is a vote,” board Chairwoman Dixie Ring of Canaan announced.

There was cheering and there was anger.

There were vows that the fight was not over and charges that the board vote to keep the mascot in 2015 was not honored. There were complaints that “outsiders” had the final word Thursday night in the high school cafeteria jammed with people on both sides of the issue.

Five police officers were assigned to the meeting, including the police chief.

“The vote went as it should,” director Derek Ellis of Skowhegan said. “We can’t rewrite history, but we can make it.”

Board member Jennifer Poirier, who was the driving force behind the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook group to keep the “Indians” nickname, said she knew the board was split on the issue.

Skowhegan Area High School cheerleaders stand beneath the Indian mural on the wall of the gymnasium on Jan. 15. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I don’t think it’s over,” she said. “I think the community’s going to be coming back because it’s not the will of the majority of the community. There’s been talk if the budget’s going to pass. We’ll see.”

Poirier said the school board appeared to have been representing people from “outside of the community.”

The outsiders Poirier mentioned may have included Maulian Dana, the ambassador of the Penobscot Nation and her father Barry Dana, of Solon, the one-time chief of the Penobscot Tribe. They and the leaders of the Maine Indian tribes and others have called for the removal of the mascot for years.

Barry Dana, who was present Thursday night for the vote, said the past four years have been difficult.

“It was a real tough thing to sit through, yet a real interesting thing,” he said after the vote. “My gut, balling up inside me, but I also had my spirit soaring with some of the testimony that some of the people on the board gave. I don’t begrudge anyone else for maintaining their position. But I think they made the right move.”

The board first met to consult with its attorney in a special executive session. Attorney Michael Buescher from Drummond Woodsum law firm had attended a previous meeting. The each person on the 23-member school board was given an opportunity to speak.

Debate has raged in and out of school board meetings since 2015, when the board voted 11-9 to keep the name, saying that the word mascot was a misnomer, as the district had dropped all the feathers, warpaint and characters years before.

They thought it was settled.

It wasn’t.

“I say that calling yourselves Indians means you have a mascot,” said Maulian Dana has said. Dana, with a nod as spokeswoman for the tribe from Chief Kirk Francis, has said the use of the “Indians” mascot is racist and demeaning to real Native Americans.

Skowhegan is the last high school in Maine to retain Native American imagery, nicknames or mascots.

But others, dressed in the Skowhegan Indians black and orange said they were disappointed with the vote Thursday night.

“It’s very disturbing that people from outside can come in and override the people who are from the community,” said Bobbi Savage, of Norridgewock. “It’s’s not over.”

People for and against the use of the word Indian in SAD 54 schools hold signs toward board members during a meeting in Skowhegan on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Supporters of keeping the “Indians” formed a heavily populated, but closed, Facebook group call Skowhegan Indian Pride. Members of that group, along with residents and school board members who agree with them, have been steadfast in their support.

Led by Poirier, members 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. Supporters of Skowhegan Indian Pride insist that they can “celebrate what our Skowhegan Indian name stands for. Honor, courage, integrity, bravery and nothing but good intentions.”

Kathy LeBrun, a resident who said her mother is full-blooded Passamaquoddy, said at a recent meeting that 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.”

“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.”

Brent Colbry, superintendent of SAD 54 said after the vote that the board and the community will decide on what next to do about changing the name. There are many considerations, including the town seal, the mural on the wall inside the high school gym, the 62-foot-tall Indian statue by Maine artist Bernard Langlais in downtown Skowhegan and the very name of the town, an Indian word for “A  place to watch” fish in the Kennebec River.

“What we’re going to do next is we’re obviously going sit back and put together a strategy or plan on how do we make the transition,” Colbry said. “It has to involve community, kids, staff and a lot of stakeholders to try to come up with a direction.”

Acknowledging that the mascot issue is a national discussion, with some Native American wanting change and others in the U.S. saying it keeps their name and history alive, 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 in February they are honored by it and that to encourage the disuse of the name is a disservice to Native American heritage.

The Native American Guardians Association spoke in a private, invitation only, assembly Feb. 24.

But supporters of the “Indians” moniker have felt the push back.

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.

People against the use of Indian in SAD 54 schools hold signs urging school board members to vote to stop the practice during a meeting in Skowhegan on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, recently 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 2005, the American Psychological Association publicly called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots” because they teach “misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians.”

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, Maine’s Department of Education on March 1 urged schools “to refrain from using mascots and logos that depict Native American tribes, individuals, customs, or traditions,” a move that comes a week before the Skowhegan area school board is scheduled to deliberate further over their schools’ “Indians” nickname.

Also 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.

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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