BANGOR, Maine — Michelle Bernard didn’t know what to expect when she transferred from Lewiston to Sanford as a high school junior in the mid 1980s.
Bernard, a Native American originally from Wisconsin, joined a school whose nickname and mascot was the Redskins, a name that literally evokes images of bloody scalps.
She wasn’t outraged, though. Instead, the teenager who was desperate to make new friends and fit in, decided to embrace her heritage. She became the Sanford Redskin. She even dressed up in a headdress and leggings at sporting events. She was a big hit.
It wasn’t until Bernard grew older that she started to feel guilty.
“I thought I could be a living embodiment of pride,” she said. “But I had betrayed myself. I had become a cartoon character to my culture and my heritage.”
Bernard, now a teacher at Husson University and a mother of two, understands that she or any of her fellow Native Americans don’t need a mascot to honor their culture.
Her story was one of many shared on Saturday at a symposium in Bangor titled “Respectful or Disgraceful: Examining Maine School Use of Indian Nicknames and Mascots.”
The event was organized and hosted by local author and instructor Ed Rice and John Dieffenbacher-Krall of the Maine Indian Tribal State Council and was meant to continue the discussion of whether schools should use Native American names or logos.
All of the Native American participants agreed that the practice is offensive, but they also were encouraged by the progress that has been made in the last several years.
“I’m thankful for this discussion. I think it’s kind of long overdue,” said Chief Rick Phillips-Doyle of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. “I think people are learning that there are other ways of expressing team pride.”
Although many Maine schools have discontinued the use of Indian names, including Old Town (from Indians to Coyotes), and Husson (from Braves to Eagles), there are still holdouts.
According to Rice, who has long advocated against mistreatment of Native Americans, the nine schools in Maine that continue to use Indian nicknames or mascots 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 Dyer Brook (Warriors); Wells High School (Warriors); and Wiscasset High School (Redskins).
Phillips-Doyle said the name “Redskins” is particularly offensive to him because of the images the word evokes. Brian Reynolds of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said he’s still bothered by the fact that some schools seem unwilling to change. James Francis, a Penobscot tribal historian, said if people really looked at the history of tribes they would understand that there is not a lot to cheer about.
Only one of those schools that still uses an Indian name, Nokomis, was represented at Saturday’s symposium. Principal Mary Nadeau said the discussion of her school’s name and mascot is ongoing within the community, but she suggested it might be time to revisit the matter.
“I’m not advocating a change, but that [decision] wouldn’t be mine to make. It would be the school board’s,” she said.
Wayne Newell with the Passamaquoddys of Indian Township, who worried that the continued use of names would “fuel the fire of classism,” said the issue rises well above political correctness. Francis also pointed out the practice is not limited to schools. Consider the Jeep Cherokee or Big Red Tobacco.
In addition to Native American representatives and Maine school officials, Rice invited members of the media to address the issue. Rick Wormwood, a southern Maine journalist and alumni of Sanford High School, has written about the issue.
“Everybody said these names are respectful, but they hide it,” he said, referring to a school’s inability to chant its name or proudly display its logo.
Steve Solloway, a longtime sports columnist for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, also has addressed the issue a number of times. Like others, Solloway pointed out the progress that has been made, but he remained dismayed by the remaining holdouts.
“You can say you’re honoring, but if [Native] people say that’s not the case, you should listen to them,” he said.
Tanya Francis, who is part Native American even though she said she doesn’t look it, remembers being teased as a teenager when others found out about her heritage.
So in junior high, she said, “I declared that I was no longer an Indian.”
Like Bernard, when Francis grew older, she took a closer look at herself. As a graduate student at the University of Maine, Francis is now conducting research on the topic of Native American names as mascots. Her conclusions so far are simple.
“I’ve learned to be proud of who you are,” she said.