At the same time some residents of Skowhegan are fighting to restore “Indians” as their school mascot, Maine lawmakers are preparing to debate a bill that would prohibit any public school from using Native American names, images or symbols.

The Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs will host a public hearing Monday on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland.

If the contentious debate in Skowhegan is any indication, the hearing could be spirited.

Collings said he almost pulled his bill after the March 7 vote by the SAD 54 board of directors to “respectfully retire” the nickname for all schools in the district. But after seeing a group mobilize to try to overturn that decision, perhaps through a referendum vote, he decided to keep it in.

“I wish we didn’t need this, frankly,” Collings said. “The fact that a group of people there feel entitled to this because it’s part of their heritage is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”

The bill has nine co-sponsors, all Democrats or independents.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, a Republican from Canaan, which is part of SAD 54, has been one of the most vocal supporters of keeping the “Indians” name. He said it’s part of the community’s shared history and believes that’s worth preserving.

As for Collings’ bill, he said he doesn’t see how the government can impose such restrictions.

“To have the government ban a word or a name or an image or symbol … that just seems beyond what I think anyone feels should happen,” Stetkis said.

Collings, though, said free speech has limitations.

“This is derogatory to a disadvantaged group of people in this state,” he said. “They say they want to honor Native Americans but they don’t feel honored by this.”

Maulian Dana, the ambassador of the Penobscot Nation who has spearheaded the “mascot” removal effort, did not return a message seeking comment Friday. She wrote in an op-ed late last year about why the issue is so important.

“We have said this does not honor us. We have said it is harmful. Experts have backed us up on both claims,” she wrote. “Elders, tribal leaders, students, scientists, reformed Indian mascot lovers, politicians and people from every walk of life have made strong cases for dropping the Indian mascot.”

Today, Maine has four active Native American tribes – the Passamaquoddys, Penobscots, Micmacs and Maliseets.

The fight in Skowhegan already has played out in many other parts of the state where Native American mascots were used. In each instance, the school districts eventually did away with their mascots but not without significant resistance from some in the community.

Scarborough was the first to make a change in 2001, dropping Redskins in favor of Red Storm.

Other towns have followed, such as Old Town in 2006, Wiscasset in 2011 and Sanford in 2012.

Last October, the school board in Wells voted unanimously to discontinue its use of the “Warrior” mascot and nickname, leaving Skowhegan as the lone holdout.

When the SAD 54 board voted 14-9 this month to do away with the “Indians” nickname, Maine became the first state in the country to remove all Native American imagery from school athletics, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills has been supportive of discontinuing use of such nicknames. This month, her Education Department urged schools “to refrain from using mascots and logos that depict Native American tribes, individuals, customs, or traditions.”

But many in Skowhegan and the other towns in the district are emboldened to hold onto the name. The communities are divided. It was only four years ago that the same board, albeit with different members, voted 11-9 to keep the name.

On Thursday, before the SAD 54 board meeting, supporters wore “Indian Pride” black and orange and chanted, “We are the Indians, the mighty, mighty Indians.”

The board agreed to consider putting the matter out to referendum but did not take a vote.

Stetkis said he thinks the public should decide this, not people who “don’t live here and don’t pay taxes here.”

Collings said he understands people who want to look back on their education or their glory days of athletics fondly. But he said those memories aren’t tied to a mascot or a name, they’re tied to people.

The ACLU of Maine, which plans to testify in favor of Collings’ bill, has pointed out studies that have shown using indigenous mascots lowers the self-esteem of Native students and teaches students that racial stereotyping is acceptable. 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.”

 

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