SCARBOROUGH — Nearly 20 years after the school board changed Scarborough High School’s nickname to “Red Storm” amid a protracted community battle, Flaherty’s Family Farm store continues to sell “Redskins” shirts that have raised public concern.

Flaherty’s Family Farm store sells Scarborough Redskins apparel, and the owner says there is nothing negative about it. Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Conflict over Native American sports team nicknames is fresh in Maine. It was only last March that the Skowhegan school district, the state’s final holdout, retired its “Indian” mascot and nickname amid controversy, and Maine lawmakers in May banned Native American mascots and nicknames in public schools.

Hayli Hu Kinney faced the issue here a few weeks ago. She recently moved to Scarborough and had visited Flaherty’s store at 123 Payne Road several times, attracted by its fresh produce, cider doughnuts and homey atmosphere. Then, while shopping at the farm stand in late October, she noticed a display of red T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts with white lettering, folded and stacked on the shelves of a white wooden hutch.

She read the small sign: “Redskins Fan Gear.”

“I was shocked,” said Kinney, who lives near the store.

Kinney was unfamiliar with the town’s emotional battle over the former high school nickname, but she knew that many school districts had dropped Native American nicknames and mascots. When she asked about the shirts, a clerk told her the owner was proud to sell them. She went home disappointed and soon after posted a two-star review on Google.

“I enjoyed shopping here at first, but I won’t be shopping here again until they adjust what’s on their shelves,” Kinney wrote. “They proudly sell racist sports gear for the bygone ‘Scarborough Redskins.’ … Reducing indigenous peoples and culture to a mascot is unacceptable. … Flaherty’s: will you please exchange these products for ones that celebrate the real Scarborough?”

The answer, at the outset, is no.

“There was nothing negative about it,” said store owner Jim Flaherty, Scarborough High School class of 1985. “We were proud to be Redskins. When people say it’s negative, it’s their negative thought process that makes it a negative thing. We’re honoring Native Americans.”

Jim Flaherty, his daughter Cindy Flaherty and his brother Jack Flaherty outside of their farm stand in Scarborough on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Flaherty is among the Scarborough High alumni who were upset when the school board decided to drop the controversial nickname in 2000 and replaced it with the not-widely-beloved “Red Storm” in 2001. A member of the American Indian Movement in Maine sought the change, and the high school’s civil rights team took up the cause. When a nonbinding referendum was held in 2008, asking the town to consider changing it again to an undetermined nickname, the measure failed narrowly, 5,398 to 5,096.

The farm’s website boasts, “Our farm stand is also the home of the retired ‘Scarborough Redskins’ attire!” A Scarborough High graduate who lives in Idaho administers a “Scarborough Redskin Pride” page on Facebook that has more than 1,400 followers and promotes the clothing sold at the store.

Flaherty’s started selling replica T-shirts and sweatshirts in 2009, after Jack Flaherty, Jim’s brother, attended his 50th class reunion, and several people bemoaned the name change. A former athletic director provided an original T-shirt and Flaherty had a bunch printed up to match, said Deb Knight, a store manager. They sold 400 to 500 initially and have sold 150 to 200 each year since, usually around Christmas and summer reunions. T-shirts sell for $10 each, and sweatshirts are priced up to $40 each.

One woman called the store last week saying she wanted to send a shirt to her son in Texas. Another woman shopping at the store last week said she has purchased several shirts through the years for her children, who attended Scarborough High in the 1980s and 1990s. A member of the class of 1967, she declined to be identified and complained that a “small group of people” concerned about being “politically correct” pushed through a change that affected the whole community.

Jim Flaherty and others at the store questioned whether Native American mascots and nicknames should be viewed as derogatory and offensive if they were selected with good intentions and for positive reasons. They noted that some people of Native American heritage have publicly objected to removing the controversial nicknames, as some did in Skowhegan, where a business has come under fire for producing “Indians” mascot apparel.

They recalled a Native American man who said he liked the shirts sold at Flaherty’s and bought several for his family back home in New Mexico. And they pointed out that the NFL’s Washington Redskins refused to change the team’s name, even though many newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, avoid using the nickname in sports coverage.

“I’ll always be a Redskin. It’s something that was an important part of my life,” said Bruce Bell, Scarborough High class of 1959, who gathered signatures for the 2008 advisory referendum. “It was never negative. It was always something you were proud of.”

According to Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot author, attorney and advocate for indigenous people worldwide, “redskins” is a fundamentally racist term that has never been positive and has long been considered pejorative. Further, she said, it’s a dehumanizing word that cannot be separated from its disparaging use related to the bounties offered by European settlers for Native American scalps.

Indigenous rights activist Sherri Mitchell discusses the struggle that remains for Maine’s Native Americans last month in Augusta. Mitchell was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

In 1863, she noted, the Daily Republican in Winona, Minnesota, ran an announcement that “the State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” By 1898, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined the word as “often contemptuous.”

“Continuing to use the word ‘redskins’ continues to devalue the lives of indigenous peoples,” said Mitchell, who heads the Wabanaki Leadership Institute at the University of Maine. She said accepting its use today perpetuates the view that indigenous peoples are obstacles to progress and profit – an idea that led to the forced removal and genocide of many native tribes, and one that continues to endanger the lives of vulnerable communities worldwide.

“It’s 2019, and we’re still having this debate,” Mitchell said. “They’re holding on to an unevolved idea from the past, and they’re not honoring anyone. They should embrace the change their community voted for, and they should evolve their consciousness. ”

Hayli Hu Kinney of Scarborough stopped shopping at Flaherty’s Family Farm store after she saw Scarborough Redskins apparel for sale. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

That’s Hayli Hu Kinney’s hope. She believes the vast majority of people in Scarborough and beyond understand that the term “redskins” is offensive. She recognizes that the nickname likely was chosen with good intentions decades ago and that some people are nostalgic for their high school years.

“But when I see these shirts in my neighborhood store, I feel it’s not a safe place for people of color,” Kinney said. “I feel extremely embarrassed about it. I want to be proud of my community. We should be embracing where we are now, not clinging to these old, racist ideas.”

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