AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission intends to propose legislation that would ban American Indian nicknames, mascots and imagery from schools in Maine.
A representative of MITSC asked members of the Maine Human Rights Commission at its regular monthly meeting Monday to co-sponsor the legislation.
“We are engaged in a civil rights and a human rights struggle with schools in the southern part of the state,” Jaimie Bissonette Lewey, chair of MITSC, told the commissioners.
Proponents of schools that use such terms as “warriors” and “braves” to refer to their sports teams, have said before that their mascots honor the Maine Indian culture.
But Lewey refuted that argument Monday in her plea to the commissioners for their support.
“Some of our children have to attend these schools and listen to their classmates speak about this history of honor, and at the same time endure opposing teams yelling, ‘Scalp them,’” she said.
The most offensive school team names in Maine, Lewey said, are used at Wiscasset High School and Sanford High School, where student athletes are known as “redskins.”
The term is particularly hurtful because the name evokes images of bloody scalps and genocide, she said.
After decades of talking and educating, Lewey said, it is time to take a bigger step.
“This request to change the names of the mascots and the images has been on the table for well over 20 years now and there are still [seven] schools — two use the name redskins and [five] additional that use native images,” Lewey said. “The conversation has demanded a lot of attention and a lot of time and a lot of resources, so at this point moving to the legislative arena seems to be more practical than working with each school.”
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday, Lewey said the legislation would be written and sponsored by Wayne T. Mitchell, who is a nonvoting tribal member of the Maine Legislature representing the Penobscot Nation.
When contacted Tuesday, Mitchell said he expected the measure to be filed by Jan. 7 and acted on by lawmakers by March.
Mitchell said the school nicknames are blatantly racist and need to change now.
“Why don’t they call them whatever their significant cultural background is from their community? If they are Italians call them their offensive nickname for Italians or Germans. Why don’t they call them that instead of native people?”
The members of the Maine Human Rights Commission made no commitment about co-sponsoring the legislation on Monday.
MHRC Executive Director Patricia Ryan said, “We are waiting to see what is being proposed. If [tribal representatives] would like to submit something for the commission to consider they can send it in and we have a commission meeting on January 24th.”
Several schools in Maine already have taken action in response to complaints that their team names were offensive:
ä In 2006, the Old Town school board replaced the district’s Indian mascot for the Coyote.
ä In 2004, Husson College, now Husson University, in Bangor replaced its Braves mascot for Eagles.
ä In 2000, Scarborough High School changed from the Redskins to the Red Storm.
ä Around 2002 Athens Elementary School, which housed the Apaches, decided to go without a mascot.
Eight schools in Maine still use Indian-related nicknames or images. Seven of them would be affected if the Maine Legislature passed the anticipated bill, according to Lewey. One, Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School of Perry, is a tribal school where the Indian mascot and imagery are not used in an offensive way, Lewey said.
The other seven schools are:
• Wiscasset High School — Redskins.
• Sanford High School — Redskins.
• Skowhegan High School — Indians.
• Strong Elementary School — Indians.
• Nokomis High School of Newport — Warriors.
• Wells High School — Warriors.
• Southern Aroostook Community School — Warriors.
Legislation has been used before to ban language considered offensive from public places in Maine. In 2001 a law was implemented to ban the word “squaw” from all public places. The word is a derogatory term for women.
Meanwhile, as the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission works on the legislation and tries to gain support for it from lawmakers, some residents of Wiscasset have begun informal efforts to retain their current high school nickname.
A group on FaceBook called “1000 Strong Against Changing the Wiscasset Redskins name” had 1,174 members as of Tuesday.