AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted Tuesday to pass a bill that would prohibit public schools and colleges from using depictions of Native Americans in mascots, logos or nicknames.

Four Republican members of the Senate joined 19 Democrats in giving preliminary approval to a bill that aims to avoid the type of divisive debate seen in Skowhegan and several other Maine communities in recent years. All 10 votes opposing the bill were cast by Republicans, some of whom argued the measure violated Maine’s tradition of “local control.”

While the bill faces additional procedural votes, it appears destined for Gov. Janet Mills’ desk based on last week’s initial approval in the Maine House. Mills is expected to sign the measure into law.

Mills fashioned a campaign platform that included improving relations between the state and Maine’s Native American tribes, saying she would work to remove offensive names and mascots for schools and athletic teams. She encouraged the school board in Skowhegan to discontinue the use of the Indians nickname.

In the House, which is also controlled by Democrats, the vote last week was 88-49 in favor of the bill. The House also passed an amendment that extended the ban to other publicly funded schools, such as the University of Maine System.

The bill, L.D. 944, would prohibit any public school or college in Maine from adopting “a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition” for use as a mascot, logo, nickname or team name, as well as on letterhead.

In March, School Administrative District 54 voted to “retire” the nickname Indians for the Skowhegan schools, ending a debate that had raged for more than four years. Skowhegan was the last public school district in Maine still using Native American imagery or nicknames.

Dropping the Indians nickname proved to be a divisive issue in the district, which includes the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield. With tensions running high, five police officers were assigned to one school board meeting where the mascot question was debated.

Residents who wanted to keep the nickname argued that their position wasn’t being heard. They pressed the school board to put a nonbinding advisory question or survey on the June referendum ballot.

But the school board voted last week not to do that.

Leaders of all four Wabanaki tribes in Maine – the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseets – had urged Skowhegan to stop using the mascot and had supported a state law prohibiting similar imagery or mascots.

 

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