Eliminating American Indian mascot names could lead to educational benefits

Posted Dec. 16, 2010, at 5:23 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 16, 2010, at 7:50 p.m.

I’ve generally been opposed to most of the recent piecemeal efforts to eliminate American Indian mascot names for school sports teams for one primary reason — because I was never sure it was the Indians among us who were the complainants.

First, I don’t have a lot of use for guilt-ridden non-Indians among us presuming how all Maine Indians feel about mascot names and then acting in a holier-than-thou spirit borne of political correctness.

And whenever I come across evidence that contradicts those efforts, such an ad in one of the state’s weekly newspapers promoting the “Warrior Sports Camps” at Peter Dana Point in Indian Township, it just reinforces my belief that many of the complaints about the mascot names must come from beyond the tribal communities themselves.

But now comes a different type of move to address the Indian mascot issue.

The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission plans to propose legislation that would ban American Indian nicknames, mascots and imagery from schools in Maine, and is seeking the support of the Maine Human Rights Commission in its effort.

Tribal commission chair Jaimie Bissonette Lewey describes the effort as a “civil rights and human rights struggle with schools in the southern part of the state,” and told the Bangor Daily News this week that the legislation would be written and sponsored by Wayne T. Mitchell, a nonvoting member of the Maine Legislature representing the Penobscot Nation.

The proposal seeks to eliminate the use of such nicknames as Redskins, Warriors and Braves, and identifies eight schools in the state that still use such Indian-related nicknames, including Nokomis (Warriors) of Newport, Skowhegan (Indians) and Southern Aroostook (Warriors) of Dyer Brook high schools in eastern Maine as well as Sanford (Redskins), Wiscasset (Redskins) and Wells (Warriors) high schools and Strong (Indians) Elementary School in western Maine.

If members of the state’s American Indian communities find these names offensive — and I’d certainly agree with Redskins, though it’s ironic that it also remains the nickname of the NFL team in our nation’s capital — then certainly one option is to eliminate them, as this latest Indian-based initiative seeks.

But in some cases there still may be room for compromise with both cultural and educational benefits for all sides.

One of the eight schools named, the Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy Reservation at Pleasant Point between Perry and Eastport, calls its teams the Indians but is not being targeted by the proposed legislation, Lewey said, because the Indian mascot and imagery are not used in an offensive way.

So rather than just taking a clear-cut approach to the rest of the schools, allow them the option of following the Rafferty School’s lead and work with tribal members to make whatever changes to their mascots and imagery are needed so the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and others won’t find them offensive while continuing to promote the local Indian history and culture that led to the naming of such schools as Nokomis and such communities as Skowhegan.

My guess is that those schools and communities might find working toward such a compromise not worth the hassle of continuing to be targeted as politically incorrect or uncaring, but it seems here not a bad alternative — particularly when even the proposed legislation is sought to be applied somewhat selectively and subjectively.

But addressing offensive elements of the school mascot issue while seeking to help preserve the visibility of Maine’s Indian culture might be a valuable learning experience for everyone in the long run.

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