Maine School Administrative District 54 board of directors members Kathy Wilder, center left, and Derek Ellis, center right, celebrate Thursday after River Hawks was selected as the Skowhegan school mascot during a meeting in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

SKOWHEGAN — As students enter the sports field representing Maine School Administrative District 54, they will now have a new nickname to rally behind: the Skowhegan River Hawks.

The historic changes come after a full year of deliberation and many more years of contention after school officials decided to retire the controversial “Indians” nickname after criticism from Native Americans that the name was racist and demeaning.

MSAD 54 board members kicked off the mascot/nickname process in the fall of 2019 — a multi-step process after the “Indians” nickname was retired. The mascot selection process was temporarily halted this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 15-5 vote, board members decided Thursday night on River Hawks after a few minutes of discussion. Three members — Haley Fleming, Gary Sinclair and Dixie Ring — were not present. The five board members who voted against River Hawks were Harold Bigelow, Desiree Libby, Chairperson Lynda Quinn, Karen Smith and Todd Smith.

Quinn kicked off the mascot discussion, asking members to stick to a two-minute time frame when explaining their thoughts on what the final vote should be.

“I would like to congratulate you all as well,” Quinn said. “We spent a lot of time putting it together, and I am proud of the work that we have done on it.”

The 23-person board had three options to choose from: Phoenix, River Hawks, or to remain simply “Skowhegan.”

Peggy Lovejoy vouched for Phoenix.

“We have worked hard to get to this point,” Lovejoy said. “I am much in favor of what I consider to be a mascot, and out of the three choices, that would be either River Hawks or Phoenix.”

Superintendent Jon Moody, left, speaks during a Maine School Administrative District 54 board of directors meeting Thursday before a mascot was selected in Skowhegan. The board picked River Hawks as the school mascot. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Students in grades six through 12 were asked to pick their top choice among nine options and rank their top three choices. Moody said that out of the roughly 1,050 students able to vote, 731 — or about 70% — participated in the survey.

The top three results were: Phoenix, the top choice, with 21.9%; River Hawks, 21.5%; and Skowhegan, 19.3%.

“The students overwhelmingly voted for a mascot. Out of the 731 students, 590 chose one of the choices that was a mascot,” Lovejoy said, referring to Phoenix and River Hawks. “From that point of view, the kids want a mascot, and it can be fun and can help us move on and heal our wounds. I like Phoenix, it’s fun, but I think both (Phoenix and River Hawks) are excellent choices. And I am very much in support of either one depending on what the board wants to do.”

Bigelow disagreed with this thought process and ultimately expressed that he would support remaining Skowhegan.

“The way I look at it, if three people ran for office and it was between one woman and two men and the woman took the least amount of votes, it’s not saying two-thirds of the people are against women,” Bigelow said.

Kathy Wilder was the first to pitch River Hawk as the final choice, saying that its ties to the area can provide educational opportunities and give the students something to rally behind.

“I think River Hawks is the strongest option,” Wilder said. “The mascot is something to cheer for, something that we rally behind on the sidelines and something that we all identify with. But the thing that I really want to see a mascot do is … inspire students.”

Wilder added that the River Hawks would be the best way for students to learn and explore more of the wildlife and conservation along the riverbanks of the Kennebec River, which runs through the heart of downtown Skowhegan.

Todd Smith expressed his support for remaining simply Skowhegan, saying that the option scored high enough to remain one of the top three choices.

Goff French expressed his support for River Hawks, adding that the meaning behind the symbol is worth rallying behind.

“I think another mascot is necessary to give the kids something to rally behind,” French said. “I found out that Phoenix stands for rebirth, resurrection and solitude; the River Hawks stand for speed, agility and power. I think those things speak much better than the Phoenix.”

Jennifer Poirier, who had been vocal in her support of keeping the old “Indians” nickname, added her input, saying that her reason for not backing the Phoenix is to avoid coming back to the board years down the line to potentially have it removed.

“We don’t want to end up in this same scenario again in 10 years. Phoenix does have a cultural meaning to people,” Poirier said, apparently referring to its origins in ancient Greece. “Some of those people live here too, and we have to be careful with that. We don’t want to offend even one person and we decided that before.”

Michael Lambke said that he was sympathetic to each option, but thought having a mascot would be fun for the students and choosing to remain “Skowhegan” would not represent all students; the school district also serves the communities of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Smithfield.

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