In a state with four Native American tribes, school nicknames like Redskins, Braves, Warriors and simply, Indians, as well as their accompanying mascots, are offensive to many.
Yet, while several Maine schools have changed their names and logos to reflect changing times, others are sticking with tradition.
The debate is not new, but local author and college instructor Ed Rice will revisit the conversation by hosting a symposium today titled “Respectful or Disgraceful?: Examining Maine School Use of Indian Nicknames and Mascots” from 1-4 p.m. at the Bangor Public Library.
Today’s events will feature three separate panels: one representing Maine’s Native American tribes; another with representatives from schools still using potentially offensive names and symbols and those that have abandoned those names; the third made up of statewide media representatives.
Rice, who is well known for his advocacy of Louis Sockalexis, a Mainer and the first Native American to play Major League Baseball, stressed that the discussion is not meant to be a witch hunt.
“I think residents are learning that some of these nicknames, while meant to honor, are embarrassing to the state,” Rice said recently. “If you can’t yell out your nickname, don’t you know you have a problem?”
In preparation for the symposium, Rice did some research. He discovered that a national advocacy group, the American Indian Cultural Support organization, listed on its Web site that there are 31 schools in Maine that still use a racially insensitive mascot.
Rice didn’t trust that number. So he called all the schools. What he discovered was that 18 of those schools have done away with the nickname in question and four others have retained the nickname but don’t use it on uniforms. That left nine holdouts.
They are Athens Elementary School (Apaches); Strong Elementary School (Indians); Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School of Perry (Indians): Nokomis High School of Newport (Warriors); Sanford High School (Redskins); Skowhegan High School (Indians); Southern Aroostook High School of Island Falls (Warriors); Wells High School (Warriors); Wiscasset High School (Redskins).
The goal, Rice said, is not necessarily to convince those nine to change their names but to get them thinking about how the names and mascots are being used.
Some may not know just how denigrating or offensive these nicknames are. James Francis, a Penobscot educator, said, for example, he finds the term redskin personally offensive. It dates back to the colonial days when the English had placed a bounty on Native Americans, paying that bounty for their scalps in what amounted to genocide, Francis said.
Mary Nadeau, principal at Nokomis High School, has a long history with Indian nicknames. She grew up and went to school in Old Town, whose teams were called the Indians for many years. She then went to Husson College when they were known as the Braves. Now, she heads a school nicknamed the Warriors.
“I’m anxious to hear and participate in this conversation,” she said. “Obviously, if there was some legislation that forced us to change, we would, but I think the bigger issue is being respectful of how we use it. I think people would prefer to stay with what we’re doing.”
Nadeau said Nokomis officials have worked closely with members of the Penobscot Nation on a dignified approach to using the Warrior nickname.
“We want to be respectful and dignified without having caricatures or undignified acts,” Nadeau said. For instance, students can paint their faces with school colors but not with “war paint” and fans are not allowed to do the “Tomahawk Chop.”
For a long time, nicknames and mascots were acceptable, but then they grew into caricatures, Rice said. The Cleveland Indians mascot, which features a smiling Chief Wahoo, is the perfect example. In Maine though, he said most school districts are very respectful, although some schools place more emphasis on historical pride than others. Wiscasset, for instance, has looked into dropping the name Redskins, but not all school committee members have been supportive.
“Some people have their heels dug in on this,” Rice said. “It is a divisive issue for that town.”
Other schools have changed mascots in recent years. The Etna-Dixmont School switched from Indians to Eagles. The Sabattus Chiefs became the Sabattus Huskies. Old Town High dropped Indians in favor of Coyotes.
Jim Dill, a former school board member in Old Town, remembers the transition about a decade ago that was prompted by discussion with Penobscot Nation officials. First, Old Town did away with the Indian logo and changed uniforms. That lasted for about three years, Dill said, but eventually the discussion came back around, and after significant public debate, the board voted to switch to Coyotes.
“It became a big celebration for us,” Dill said. “Everyone had fun picking a new mascot, and over time, I think everybody is supportive. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t contentious, but it has worked out.”
In September 2004, Husson College switched from the Braves to the Eagles. Officials at the time said it had nothing to do with complaints, but represented a long-held desire by school officials to come up with an inoffensive mascot. When Husson originally took the Braves name, it was to honor the school’s close association with the Penobscot Indian Nation.
The issue has played out nationally in recent years, too. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned any schools with “hostile” or “abusive” nicknames and logos from post-season competition. Not all schools took the prohibition lightly, including Florida State, home of the Seminoles, which threatened legal action and then eventually worked out an agreement with the Seminole tribe.
The controversy over offensive names isn’t limited to schools. Last June, Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill that expanded the state’s prohibition of the word “squaw” in official place names. Many American Indians regard squaw as a derogatory term for women.
That bill was aimed largely at addressing a long-running dispute between a homeowners’ association and town officials in Stockton Springs, which featured a local landmark known as Squaw Point. Baldacci said the change was consistent with Maine’s reputation as a welcoming state.
The bill could not force private business owners who do not regard the historic use of the word “squaw” as offensive or derogatory to change the names of their establishments. One example is Big Squaw Mountain Resort, located on what is officially known as Big Moose Mountain near Greenville.
In preparing today’s symposium, Rice contacted Maine’s tribes, all of which agreed to co-sponsor the symposium. John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, also has been involved. He was impressed with Rice’s research, but he wasn’t sure whether it would lead to action at the state level.
“There has been no talk of further legislation, although we work diligently to monitor our relationships with the state,” Dieffenbacher-Krall said. “It’s a big social issue. Our hope is that we wouldn’t need any additional legislation.”
Nadeau said keeping the discussion going is the best way to address any potential problems.
“We know it’s a fine line,” she said. “Last year, one student bought an Indian headdress to wear [at a school function], and we had to address that. But we get new students all the time so it’s a continual education process.”
Maine Schools with Indian mascots or nicknames:
Athens Elementary School (Apaches)
Strong Elementary School (Indians)
Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School of Perry (Indians)
Nokomis High School of Newport (Warriors)
Sanford High School (Redskins)
Skowhegan High School (Indians)
Southern Aroostook High School of Island Falls (Warriors)
Wells High School (Warriors)
Wiscasset High School (Redskins)
Source: Ed Rice