Selectmen on Tuesday voted against asking residents whether the town should purchase the Skowhegan Indian, a 62-foot wooden statue by Bernard Langlais that sits at 65 Madison Ave. in Skowhegan. The board is expected to tell the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce, which owns the statue and gave the town right of first refusal to buy it, that the town is not interested. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Voters in Skowhegan won’t get to weigh in on the town’s possible acquisition of the 62-foot-tall Skowhegan Indian sculpture, leaving the future of the local landmark unclear for now.

After the nearly 60-year-old sculpture of a Wabanaki fisherman was damaged in recent months, the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce offered to transfer its ownership to the town of Skowhegan in March. Taking care of an aging wooden artwork was not a priority for the organization, chamber leadership said in a letter.

Presented the right of first refusal, the Board of Selectmen decided to seek more information, and some members said they wanted to leave it up to voters to decide at the June 10 town meeting.

But a motion to put it on the town meeting warrant was shot down by a majority of selectmen Tuesday, meaning that voters won’t have a say after all.

Chairman Todd Smith, who was one of the two selectmen who voted to send the issue to voters, said Wednesday he expects town officials to soon write a letter to the chamber of commerce informing the organization that the town does not want the Indian.

It is unclear if selectmen will need to vote on that decision before sending that letter, Smith said. The decision Tuesday was only about the town meeting warrant article, not the town’s acquisition of the statue.

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Maine Weather Beaten Sculpture

The Skowhegan Indian statue, battered by wind and rain, is pictured March 5. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

Tuesday’s vote came after a lengthy discussion about what would need to go into a town meeting article about the acquisition of the Indian. Selectmen agreed the article would need to include the raising and appropriating of $250,000 for repairs, along with an explanation that funds would need to be raised in subsequent years for future maintenance.

“I have no idea what the costs are going to be,” Smith said during the meeting. “Nobody really has an idea.”

The last major restoration of the sculpture, a multiyear effort led by local builder Stephen Dionne, was completed in 2014 at a cost of about $65,000.

Commissioned by the Skowhegan Tourist Hospitality Association in 1966, the Indian was completed in 1969 by artist Bernard Langlais, a student and teacher at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, according to the chamber’s website.

Some consider the sculpture, which stands in the municipal parking lot off Madison Avenue and High Street, to be the largest of its kind in the world, according to the chamber’s website. The sculpture depicts a Wabanaki fisherman holding a spear in his left hand and a weir, or fish trap, in his right hand.

Langlais’ estate gave more than 20 of his sculptures, many of which are wooden, to the nonprofit Main Street Skowhegan in 2013. Those works are also placed around town, and the Langlais Art Trail maps the location of the sculptor’s work in dozens of locations across Maine.

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Rotting wood, worsened by Maine’s harsh climate, accounts for most of the damage to the Indian. Town officials and chamber leaders have said they expect the sculpture’s condition to deteriorate further over time.

The damage could be a liability, members of the chamber of commerce’s board of directors and town officials have said. Pieces blew off this winter, leading police to cordon off the area with cones and crime scene tape for several days.

“We could be opening the town up for big hurt,” Gail Pelotte, town clerk and treasurer, said at Tuesday’s meeting, recommending that the town explore insurance before making any decisions.

But residents have mixed opinions about the sculpture, said Selectman Paul York, who voted to approve the Town Meeting article.

“We just felt that it shouldn’t be 5 of us (voting),” York said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It should be the town voters.”

For Michelle Kelso, the Indian is an important symbol for Skowhegan. The local schools’ nickname was the Indians until it was changed in 2019 after extensive debate.

“We went through enough when they took away our name,” Kelso, a member of the School Administrative District 54 board of directors and an alternate member of the Skowhegan Planning Board, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We deserve to have that Indian. And if it costs an extra five bucks in my taxes, I’m willing to pay it.”

It is possible that another group may want to acquire and restore the sculpture, said Garrett Quinn, a member of the chamber’s board of directors who attended Tuesday’s meeting.

“If the town says that they don’t want it, then we’re going to go to some nonprofits that maybe restore art or use art or want this piece to move someplace else, whatever they want,” Quinn said. “And if we don’t have any takers, then we’re going to go down the road to see what it’s going to cost to dismantle it.”

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