The story of the yearslong battle to replace the Skowhegan-based school district’s “Indians” nickname has been made into a film scheduled to premiere this weekend at the 24th Maine International Film Festival.

The film, “Fighting Indians,” is set in a “divided town where the mascot debate exposes centuries-old abuses while still asking if reconciliation is possible,” according to a description of the film.

The film’s two directors said their purpose in making the movie was not only to educate people on the issue surrounding Native American mascots, but to frame the debate “in terms of what it means for native people.”

Directed by Mark Cooley and Derek Ellis, “Fighting Indians” is set to premiere Saturday at MIFF as a “work-in-progress screening.”

“You can’t just talk about the mascot issue in isolation,” Cooley said. “In the media, usually it’s covered as a political correctness issue — liberals versus conservatives. It’s hardly framed in terms of what it means for native people.”


The film’s two-hour runtime includes interviews with many people, including Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, and her father, Barry Dana, former chief of Penobscot Nation.

Once interviews began for what was initially intended as a short film, it became clear to Cooley and Ellis they had a lot to learn and it was important to include a national context. The interview list grew “organically,” the co-directors said.

In 2019, Maine was the first state to ban public schools and colleges from using depictions of Native Americans in mascots, logos or nicknames.

“For Maine’s tribal nations, the landmark legislation was a victory in a decadeslong struggle to educate the public on the harms of native mascotry,” according to the film’s description. “‘Fighting Indians’ chronicles the last and most contentious holdout in that struggle, the central Maine Skowhegan High School, known for decades as ‘The Home of the Indians.'”

Under Maine law (L.D. 944), schools are prohibited 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.

In Skowhegan, the “Indians” nickname was retired about a month before the legislation passed March 7, 2019, with members of the Maine School Administrative District 54 board of directors and the community divided on the issue.


Cooley and Ellis are both Skowhegan Area High School graduates. While Cooley no longer lives in Maine, Ellis is still a Skowhegan resident.

“We went to Skowhegan High School,” Cooley said, “and we never thought about (the mascot) when we were there. It wasn’t until much later we became more aware of the issue. We wanted to get students, townspeople, different voices in the film, and we went from there.”

Cooley and Ellis said although they attempted to tell the story from many sides, some people did not respond to requests they be included in the film.

“This is the story of a small New England community forced to reckon with its identity, problematic history, and future relationship with its Indigenous neighbors,” according to the film’s description.

Cooley and Ellis are not strangers to MIFF. In 2018, their short film, “The Ten Mile Yard Sale,” was included in the popular film festival. The film tells the story of the annual lawn sale that stretches from Cornville to Skowhegan.

After finishing their short film in 2018, the pair decided to work on something else. Ellis, a member of the Skowhegan-based MSAD 54 board, said he had been watching the mascot discussion and drew inspiration from it.


“At first, we thought we could make a short film about the issue that might help educate people about it, especially people who had never really thought about it,” Cooley said.

The movie is one of the films included in this year’s MIFF that was made, produced or set in Maine.

Some of the others include “The Catch,” directed by Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer, and “The Bride in the Box,” directed by Doug Bost.

Another film, “Bread in the Bones,” is sponsored by Maine Grains in Skowhegan.

MIFF is an annual, Waterville-based event organized by the Maine Film Center of Waterville. The festival’s sponsors include Colby College, Waterville Creates and the Lawry Family Foundation.

The film festival is scheduled to begin Friday at the Waterville Opera House, with the New England premiere of “Nine Days,” directed by Edson Oda.

The film schedule, tickets for showings and festival passes are available through the MIFF website.

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