In 2015, after a lengthy public collaborative effort between indigenous people of Maine and our allies and the school board of SAD 54 in Skowhegan, the board voted 11-9 to keep their Indian mascot, officially the last one of its kind in the state of Maine. We had started the engagement with mostly pleasant exchanges of ideas and recommendations, the most effective being a 12-person panel of representatives from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac Nations presenting to the school policy committee. This led to a public forum that was held exclusively for residents of the district, which was a power play by the mascot keepers but ended up showing us there was strong support in the district for change. We have kept those relationships intact and nourished them in the years that followed.
I personally have been through the ringer on this. I unwillingly became the face of a movement at a time when there were so many others involved. I just happened to have the biggest mouth.
I was threatened, bullied, intimidated, lied about, had to read terrifying things about me and my children. It took a big toll. I was shaken but never wanted to stop trying.
I have been working on removing Indian mascots since I was a teenager two decades ago. Skowhegan has given me the most angst and anger. My journey in this work started when I was 15 years old watching a Skowhegan basketball game on TV and watched fans prancing around in fake feathers, making hand over mouth war whoops, beating on fake drums and carrying signs with racist language on them.
It sparked something in me that they haven’t been able to extinguish. I don’t want to do this work; I need to do it. My ancestors sacrificed so much so that I could be here and have these sacred ties to them. It is the least I can do to make sure their legacy and gifts to the next seven generations are not defiled and misappropriated.
We have said this does not honor us. We have said it is harmful. Experts have backed us up on both claims. Elders, tribal leaders, students, scientists, reformed Indian mascot lovers, politicians and people from every walk of life have made strong cases for dropping the Indian mascot.
We are on the precipice of Maine being a state with no degrading and racist mascots. It does not make us weakened by “politically correct snowflakes.” It is does not water down anyone’s heritage. It does not mean the town name needs to change.
A name and mascot change will mean SAD 54 has finally recognized the true way to honor people is to listen to them and to correct the harm done. It means that in a time when our differences have the potential to divide and scare us, we will all take a meaningful step to unite as members of the human race and celebrate the beautiful uniqueness that we carry in our individual sacred spaces.
Nobody loses when the mascot changes. We walk together into a new era where all of our children can be treated as equals no matter their race. My 12-year-old daughter will be thinking about high school soon and what a gift for her to walk into any event or game without being discriminated against because of who she was born as.
We don’t want special rights. We want equal rights. If any other race was degraded in this way, it would not be tolerated. These mascots are not only hard for us to deal with on a superficial level, the way that they dehumanize us translates to racist attitudes and behaviors against us. Racism is an illness and mascots are a symptom, but when the racism is not validated by an institution, it carries far less impact and consequences.
The SAD 54 school board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday to again take up the mascot issue. Both sides are organizing support for their views. Some of the players remain the same and the arguments from Skowhegan Indian Pride have grown stale and even more outlandish. I ask for your support to change the mascot. Now is the time.
Maulian Dana is the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador and founder of Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter.