Only 3 Maine schools still have Indian nicknames; tribal leader praises effort to eliminate them

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Posted March 11, 2014, at 5:29 a.m.
Last modified March 11, 2014, at 6:20 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A four-year push to end the use of school nicknames such as Indians, Redskins and Warriors in Maine has led to multiple name changes, leading Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis to reflect on the success of the statewide effort.

“The reality is while the tribes brought this to the table, it was really Maine that made it happen, and it’s very gratifying to see that,” said Francis in a recent interview.

In 2010, the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission called for a ban on the use of names, mascots and imagery that reference American Indians. The commission specifically called out the use of the term Redskins. The word was originally used in Maine to describe Penobscots who were killed for bounty in the 18th century, according to John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the MITSC.

School boards in Wiscasset and Sanford voted in 2011 and 2012, respectively, to change their high schools’ Redskins monikers to the Wiscasset Wolverines and the Sanford Spartans. In Wiscasset, the move was particularly contentious, with students walking out of class in protest after the decision was made.

Francis said that the conversations that occurred as a result of those efforts were important to have.

“I think it was extremely productive,” he said. “At the end of the day, it came down to how do we stop the cycle of painting natives in a stereotypical way … and how do we educate people about words that historically were about destroying natives.”

According to Ed Rice, a journalist and author who periodically contributes to an online database that tracks the use of American Indian names, 29 schools in Maine from elementary schools to a college have changed their monikers. One of the schools Rice cited, A.D. Gray Jr. High of Waldoboro, did not have the nickname Indians, according to people familiar with it. The school, whose teams were called the Raiders, has been closed for several years.

Francis emphasized that the tribes were not simply looking for something to gripe about.

“I think it’s important that it’s always said that the tribes are not just looking for things to argue about,” he said. “It’s really about what we’re hearing from our kids, what we’re hearing from students, what we’re hearing from policymakers.”

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called on schools to discontinue the use of these names. The group cited “a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people,” according to the APA’s website.

There remain three schools in Maine that have not changed their names. They are Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and Wells High School, which use the moniker Warriors, and Skowhegan Area High School, which uses Indians.

Administrators at all three schools said recently that the names are not meant to be disrespectful and that though the communities have periodic conversations about the names, there are no plans on the table to change them.

“It was treated very seriously,” said Skowhegan Area High School principal Richard Wilson of the discussion about the school’s moniker. He added that representatives from the tribes spoke with school officials and that the school’s logo was changed from an American Indian head to an image of an American Indian kneeling by a body of water with a spear.

“To be honest, I think it’s a non-issue for our community,” said Jerry Marsh, president of the Wells High School athletic booster club, who said he was part American Indian. “I have not heard anything within the community about questioning the name of our sports teams.”

The effort to eliminate the use of these names is ongoing nationwide. Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has come under increasing pressure to change the National Football League team’s name, though he remains adamant that the name will stay, according to The Washington Post. In 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education voted to ban the use of such monikers in all public schools in that state.

In a recent news release, Rice listed the following Maine schools that have changed monikers in recent years (new names in parentheses; some eliminated nicknames altogether):

Dropping the nickname of “Indians” were 14 schools: Mildred Day Memorial School of Arundel, Blue Hill Consolidated School (Bobcats), Corinna Junior High School (Wildcats), Etna-Dixmont School (Eagles), Narragansett Primary School of Gorham, Sugg Middle School of Lisbon Falls (Greyhounds), Joseph A. Leonard School of Old Town (Coyotes), Old Town High School (Coyotes), Dirigo Elementary School of Peru (Cougar Cubs), St. Albans Elementary School, Pemetic Elementary School of Southwest Harbor, Strong Elementary School, and Wiscasset Primary School.

Retiring the nickname “Warriors” or simply moving to a “generic” use of the term by dropping any Indian head icon were five schools: D.W. Merritt Elementary School of Addison, Fort Kent Community High School (generic use), Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook-Island Falls (generic use), Temple Academy of Waterville (Bereans) and Trenton Elementary School (Timberwolves).

Eliminating the nickname “Redskins” were four schools: Sanford High School (Spartans), Scarborough High School (Red Storm), Scarborough Junior High School (Red Storm) and Wiscasset High School (Wolverines).

Dropping the name “Braves” were four schools: Beals Elementary School (Bees), Columbia Falls Elementary School, Husson University of Bangor (Eagles) and Sanford Junior High School.

Sabattus Central School changed its nickname from “Chiefs” to “Huskies,” while the Athens Elementary School no longer uses any nickname after dropping “Apaches.”

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story erroneously stated that A.D. Gray Junior High School is in Waldo. It’s in Waldoboro.

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