With a decisive vote by the School Administrative District 54 school board to end the use of “Indians” as the nickname for Skowhegan Area High School’s sports teams, one hopes that the result will be accepted, and the community can move on. The initial signs, however, were not encouraging.

Three days after the board’s 14-9 vote, which reversed an 11-9 verdict in favor of keeping the mascot nearly four years earlier, an “Indian pride” rally was held to gather signatures for a proposed referendum. It was unfortunate that dissenting school board members were there, encouraging the petition; of all people, they should understand that controversies must be resolved by majority vote.

It’s unlikely a referendum will occur; the school board is the responsible body, and there’s no reason to believe its members didn’t understand their constituents’ views on what may be the most thoroughly debated local issue in recent Maine history.

As happened after “Indians” was removed as the mascot, nickname or symbol for 19 other Maine schools, some grumbling will continue. Perhaps the issue has still not been clearly stated, because many people with strong community ties continue to insist that the only thing that matters is their own belief in “tradition.”

We live in a time of political and cultural turmoil. “America,” the single concept we all identify with, is changing once again. The United States — and Maine — has never been monolithic, in religion, national origin, ethnicity, or color, yet the dramatic demographic shifts we’ve seen since immigration reform in 1965, which opened entry to all peoples of the world, has upended the order many of us were born into.

We’ve been here before, and undoubtedly will be again, should the nation endure long enough. The key to the problem, and to the answer, lies in our national motto, “E pluribus unum,” or “Out of many, one,” that’s imprinted on our currency and coins.

It originally referred to the 13 colonies united to form a nation, but it is even more apt in describing the endless process of immigration and internal migration, shifting regional identities and allegiances, that has marked all 242 years of our national existence, and shows no sign of abating.

Both the “many” and the “one” must be honored. We may all be Americans, but we have a lot of other identities, often strongly held and deeply believed.

We must also honor, or at least tolerate, the beliefs of others, and this is where SAD 54 had fallen short. There’s an important distinction between “cultural appreciation” and “cultural appropriation,” and “appropriation” was what was going on.

Of all the groups that claim a distinctive identity, the Indian tribes come first — their history long predates those of all other American citizens. The Penobscot tribe is indeed proud to call their reservation “Indian Island,” and to live in the county called Penobscot — an appropriate recognition of their continued presence.

There is no such authentic tradition in the Skowhegan area, where no tribes have gathered for nearly three centuries. “Indians” in such settings is no more appropriate than “blackface” used by white actors.

Even within the school district, there are tensions. While “Skowhegan” became the label for intensive news coverage, the other five towns in the district — Canaan, Mercer, Smithfield, Cornville and Norridgewock — collectively have more residents than Skowhegan does, and their representatives sometimes see things differently.

Like nearly all rural areas in Maine, these towns faced declining economies and student numbers, though they are faring better than most — and the Skowhegan area can now take more steps to assure its future.

Rather than continuing to fight old battles, why not put the focus there? One way to create unity would be to open discussion about what the new symbol for the sports teams might be.

What natural or historical features are most characteristic of the region? Wildlife is abundant, and traditionally provides team names that have the advantage of not being claimed by other humans.

Moving on can be hard, but it’s also necessary. A future marked by lawsuits, debates at the Legislature, and continuing controversy is not in anyone’s interests.

With the long-planned Kennebec River Gorge project taking shape — aided by a new grant to create fire displays similar to those that still bring crowds to Providence, R.I. — Skowhegan may be ready to turn the page and emphasize its considerable assets.

Creating one out of many is a never-ending struggle, but it’s one that’s in our DNA — as Americans, Mainers, and members of local communities. About that, at least, we all ought to be able to agree.

 

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. His latest book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and he welcomes comment at: [email protected]


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