SKOWHEGAN — School board members may have voted Thursday night to stop using the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the district, but more debate is on the horizon now that the details and timing of that contentious decision need to be worked out.

The Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 Board of Directors voted 14-9 Thursday night to “respectfully retire” the nickname and sports mascot, making SAD 54 the final public school district in Maine to let go of what critics have called racist imagery that insults Native Americans. With weighted votes from each of the six SAD 54 towns, the vote was 558 in support of retiring the nickname and 441 against the change.

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

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.

“What we’re going to do next is we’re obviously going to 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.”

Debate over the “Indians” name has raged loudly in and out of school board meetings since 2015, when the board voted 11-9 to keep the name.  Some board members at the time said that the word “mascot” was a misnomer, as the district had dropped all the feathers, warpaint and characters years before. But critics, including members of Maine’s tribes, persisted that the schools’ use of the “Indians” name amounted to a racist and demeaning mascot to real Native Americans.

“It is a vote,” board Chairwoman Dixie Ring of Canaan announced Thursday, prompting both cheering and anger from the audience. Five police officers were assigned to the meeting, including the police chief.

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

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.

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 and indicated that the supporters of the name would challenge the board vote.

“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.”

Lynda Quinn, an SAD 54 board member who voted against retiring the nickname, said on Friday that she respects the process and outcome. She called the 14-9 vote “resounding” and an indication that “things have changed and majority rules.” Now, Quinn said, officials should turn their attention to being “slow, methodical, thoughtful and careful” as the name change is carried out.

“I hope that cool heads prevail. I hope there is a committee, a great cross-section of people from all aspects of Skowhegan, and that we do what we need to,” Quinn said. “We will move forward. Some people are concerned that there’s a lot of hurt feelings, but I’m not so sure. I’m going to carry on and move forward.”

Poirier, though, said the school board appeared to have been representing people from “outside of the community.” She was seemingly referring to those such as 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.

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In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, Skowhegan Area High School cheerleaders stand beneath a mural of the school’s mascot on the wall of the gymnasium in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

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 Micheal Boucher from Drummond Woodsum law firm had attended a previous meeting. Then each person on the 23-member school board was given an opportunity to speak.

Some people dressed in the Skowhegan Indians black and orange at Thursday night’s meeting said that they were disappointed with the vote.

“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.”

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.”

Malian Dana, of Indian Island, back left, sits with a shirt that reads “We Are A People Not Your Mascot” during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School on April 7, 2016. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Since SAD 54 officials began debating the nickname’s use again over the last year, many people and groups have weighed in. Soon after taking office, Gov. Janet Mills encouraged the SAD 54 board to discontinue use of the nickname, and 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.”

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. On Friday, the Maine ACLU released a statement in which staff attorney Emma Bond called the decision to retire the nickname a “historic moment for Skowhegan and our state,” adding that Maine is now “poised to become the first state in the nation to successfully end the harmful use of indigenous mascots in schools.”

“By retiring the harmful mascot, the town of Skowhegan is forging a bold new legacy of leadership,” Bond said in the statement.

But Quinn, the school board member, cautioned that people who were against retiring the nickname may yet have more to say — and they should be heard, she said.

“This cannot be done too quickly,” Quinn said. “To me — and I understand why the school board voted the way they did — the community at large had a lot to say and I don’t think they thought their wants and desires were taken into account. The process now needs to be slow and a lot of people need to weigh in.”

Colbry, the superintendent, said on Friday that he expects a strategy will be worked out by the school board in the coming weeks, likely taking months or “whatever time it takes to do it right. I might bring a tentative proposal for them (the school board) to react to.

“I don’t know what that would look like,” Colbry said, “but I think it’s a big tent approach with voices from all constituencies.”

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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