SKOWHEGAN  — As supporters of keeping the Skowhegan “Indians” nickname for local sports teams have said, it isn’t over yet.

Decked out in “Indian Pride” black and orange and displaying signs and shirts at a school board meeting Thursday night, supporters burst into a loud chant before the meeting even began — “We are the Indians, the mighty, mighty Indians.”

Police officers stood by. There were no problems, but it was loud.

The “keepers” on this Thursday night clearly outnumbered the “changers.”

The School Administrative District 54 board met Thursday night to update the planning process following the board’s 14-9 vote March 7 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. The Skowhegan-based school district was the last in Maine to do so, making the state the first in the nation to remove all Native American imagery and names from school sports teams, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said after the vote.

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

However, not all residents were happy with the vote, and many began assembling in rallies to gather petition signatures to revisit the question, saying the community and school students should have their say. Others said the 23-member school board is elected as the voice of the people and that the final vote had become district policy.

A truck with a banner supporting the Skowhegan Area High School sports teams nickname stands in a crosswalk Thursday during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Board Chairwoman Dixie Ring, of Canaan, allowed four people to speak Thursday night.

Opening was Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, who stood to tell the school board that he had petitions signed by 4,000 people “to maintain the Skowhegan Indians name.”

Stetkis said the board vote, possibly meant to finally quell discussion on the controversial subject, had “quite the opposite effect.”

Stetkis asked that a moratorium be imposed on action on the March 7 vote until the public is able to vote in “a free and fair” referendum on the issue.

On the other side, Cynthia Some-Hernandez called for calm and asked for a an initiative to select a new mascot now that the vote was taken. She said a systemwide competition to select a new mascot would empower the student body.

Ring, the board chairwoman, finally said they would put the matter of a referendum on a future board agenda for full discussion.

Joel Stetkis, a state representative from Canaan, presents a petition Thursday calling for public vote on the planned change of the Skowhegan “Indians” sports teams nickname during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“We hear you,” she told the group of supporters. “I hear you loud and clear.”

About 50 people showed up March 10 in front of the iconic Skowhegan Indian sculpture in downtown Skowhegan to gather signatures calling for the vote to be revisited, and there were subsequent rallies and petition-gathering efforts.

Sporting the black and orange “Indian Pride” garb, the group huddled around cars and pickup trucks in front of the sculpture donated to the town in 1969 by Maine artist Bernard Langlais.

It was a call to action, said school board member Todd Smith, passing out flyers while others distributed petitions to be signed. Contact persons also listed on the flyer included school board member Jennifer Poirier, the founder of the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook croup.

Lisa Savage, an eighth-generation Skowhegan resident now living in Solon, said she feels the school board “followed a careful and democratic process to arrive at their decision on March 7 to respectfully retire the mascot/team name.”

“I’m not sure I understand the point of the petitions other than that they demonstrate that there are board members who refuse to uphold and implement a decision that didn’t go their way,” she said.

Savage said there were opportunities for the public to make their wishes known to the board, including a public forum on Jan. 8 where many district students and residents spoke in favor of change.

“In my opinion, the mascot controversy has now moved to the Legislature, which will hold a public hearing on L.D. 944 on Monday at 1 p.m,” Savage said of a bill sponsored by Rep. Benjamin T. Collings, D-Portland. “The fact that the Maine House of Representatives passed the bill to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day earlier this week is a sign that the bill banning Native mascots will pass also.”

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 settled then and might not be now, either.

Passing out petitions March 10 to be signed, “Indian Pride” supporter Kenny Steward, of Skowhegan, said their side of the story hadn’t been told.

“This is our story, not their story. This is our town,” Steward said. “We are doing a petition to save the ‘Indian’ name. This is our Indian. We’re not doing it to be racist; we’re not doing it to be disrespectful. We’re doing it to honor the people that lived here before.”

The petition asks the SAD 54 board to allow all registered voters of the six district towns to “vote on the retention or removal” of the Skowhegan Indian name and seal of Skowhegan Area High School and have the board of directors “adhere to the result of such a vote.”

Todd Smith, the school board member from Skowhegan, said before the meeting Thursday that he has collected some signatures, but those have been picked up and readied to be delivered to the school superintendent, Brent Colbry.

“My hope is that the board will see the outpouring of local supporters and put it to the voters of the district in a referendum vote with the budget vote,” he said. “The ‘changers,’ as they have been labeled, say it’s bad for students’ learning, and members of the board indicated its our job it to look out for the children. In this case, it’s so many parents of the children we are working for telling us we aren’t doing a good job because of this vote to change.

“I don’t believe my job as a board member is to try to raise the kids, but help set up an environment of learning with the parents’ input.”

Maulian Dana, the ambassador of the Penobscot Nation who has spearheaded the “mascot” removal effort, said she did not plan to attend Thursday’s meeting, preferring to concentrate on the proposed bill to ban all Native American imagery for school sports teams instead. She said the issue at hand is just that — school mascots or nicknames — not the town seal, as some have suggested, or the Bernard Langlais sculpture of the Skowhegan Indian downtown.

“We asked for the mascot to be removed,” she said, “that the ‘Indians’ not be the name of the high school teams. My opinion is that they are conflating our request with a call to remove other things as an attempt to present a slippery-slope argument.”

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

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