SKOWHEGAN — The tribal ambassador from the Penobscot Nation this month called on the Board of Directors of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 to retire the nickname “Indians” for their high school sports teams.
It wasn’t the first time such a request had been made.
Maulian Dana, a resident of the Penobscot Indian Reservation, near Old Town, hand delivered a formal appeal Nov. 1 to the school board, which in May 2015, voted 11-9 to keep the name, saying sports teams use it to honor their heritage and history along the banks of the Kennebec River.
“Your ‘Indian’ mascot is the last one of it’s kind in the state of Maine, which you share with five tribal reservation communities,” wrote Dana, daughter of one-time Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, of Solon.
“Mascot use has been found to be harmful to children and creates an unhealthy learning environment as well as shaping their views of Indigenous people to be stereotypical and not based in reality which is problematic for their Indigenous peers and hinders their development,” she wrote.
Dana said she was given the opportunity to speak and that board members were respectful when she delivered the request.
Board member Jennifer Poirier, founder of the closed Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook group, said school board members have agreed to direct all media questions on the subject to SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry.
Contacted last week, Colbry acknowledged that Dana had read a letter to the board.
“There was no comment,” he said. “There was no action taken or discussed.”
In her letter, Dana tells the school board that changes being made at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and by the Wells-Ogunquit school committee, where the districts are removing Native American imagery from their “Warriors” mascots, have left the Skowhegan district the last in Maine to retain the name or image of an American Indian.
Some members of Maine’s tribes say use of the name and related images are an insult to their heritage and an affront to the history of the region where tribal members were slaughtered and forced to move from their ancestral home so white Europeans could settle the land and enjoy the abundance it offered.
SAD 54 board members, including Lynda Quinn and Harold Bigelow, who were re-elected in June, are staunch supporters of keeping the Indians nickname. They say it’s their town, their sports teams and their business.
Quinn, who has been a Skowhegan selectwoman and Somerset County commissioner, said there really is nothing left to discuss.
“We got rid of that mascot in 1990,” Quinn said in June, reiterating what she has said in previous interviews. “That was the first time that we sat down with our local Native Americans who had expressed a concern about the names ‘Fighting Indians,’ ‘Running Indians’ and the little caricatures and the imagery we had around that high school. We thought that was reasonable — all they asked, and they said, ‘Please just don’t make fun of us’ — OK, that’s reasonable, so in 1990 all that cartoon stuff was painted away.”
Dana said in her letter that the move doesn’t go far enough, citing two instances where she sees racial discrimination being perpetuated.
“There have been offensive posts to social media celebrating the ‘scalp towel,’ which used to be used at the high school games and is a reference to the genocide of Indigenous people,” she wrote. “There was the local business promotion entitled ‘hunt the Indian’ by the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce that was a perfect example of the ignorance fostered by these mascots.”
The Chamber canceled last year’s “Hunt for the Indian” event, which used a miniature Skowhegan Indian icon for a holiday business promotion, due to public outcry and later issued an apology.
“Hunt the Indian was especially horrific because of the slaughter that occurred of Native people at Norridgewock in the 1700s which is in your district,” Dana wrote. “Your mascot is used, whether you are aware of it or not, to perpetuate and celebrate violence and racism against the Penosbcot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet people of Maine and our ancestors. You have been asked numerous times to consider this change.”
A contingent of 10 representatives of Maine Indian tribesvisited the school board in April 2015 to request the district drop the nickname and imagery.
Debate in Maine over using Native American images and nicknames dates back at least to 2001, and nationally, back 40 years.
The first Maine school to change was Scarborough High School, in 2001. The school dropped “Redskins” in favor of “Red Storm.” Husson University eliminated the “Braves” nickname and became the Eagles. Wiscasset High School and Sanford High School eliminated the “Redskins” nickname. Wiscasset teams are now known as the Wolverines, while Sanford athletes are the Spartans. In Old Town, the nickname “Indians” was dropped and “Coyotes” was adopted.
Then Wells High School dropped the Native American image and this year Nokomis is preparing to do the same.
In Skowhegan, supporters of keeping the “Indians” name insist it is a source of pride in community, is the town’s heritage and is not racist.
“We have been hurt by your behavior in the past but still we extend a hand of unity and peace,” she wrote. “We do not want to raise our children to fear or distrust your children. We want our culture and life ways respected and not mocked and degraded by your institution.
“We don’t want to be hunted, we want to be heard. On behalf of the Wabanaki Nations, we thank you for your consideration and we honor your truth as we hope you will ours.”
The Skowhegan Area High School Indians mascot on the wall of the gymnasium. It is shown during a game against Mt. Blue High School in December 2013. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo)