SKOWHEGAN, Maine — When Penobscot Nation member Maulian Dana Smith saw the photo of an orange “scalp towel” embroidered with a hand gripping a bunch of hair posted on Facebook by Skowhegan Area High School’s baseball coach, her blood went cold, she said.
“In 1755, the English Spencer Phips Proclamation was issued calling for scalping, basically advocating for the extermination of the Penobscot people,” Smith said Thursday, referring to a time when Maine was still part of Massachusetts and her people were hunted by colonists. “There were different amounts for the scalps, which were called redskins.
“We were wanted for our ungodly status,” she said with a snort of disgust.
Seeing the online post from a coach at the last school in Maine that maintains an “Indians” mascot, even though she and other members of the state’s tribes have asked that it be eliminated, has brought the issue back to the forefront for Smith and the school community.
“It was appalling,” said Smith, an Indian Island resident and founder of the Not Your Mascot Maine Chapter Facebook page.
Skowhegan High baseball coach Rick York posted a Facebook picture on Aug. 6 of the school-colored sports booster towel from his high school years with the words “scalp towel” embroidered in thick black cursive lettering.
York found the “circa 1987” towel in his garage and posted a picture of it, linked to school board member Jennifer Pelotte Poirier, with the message, “Probably shouldn’t wear this tonight … no I won’t.”
Poirier, a supporter of the school keeping its Indians mascot, responded with, “LOL [laugh out loud] probably shouldn’t!” and added a smiley face.
A message left with Poirier for comment Thursday was not immediately returned.
Smith called the joking especially hurtful, demeaning and racist.
“It’s like joking about the Jewish holocaust or slavery,” she said. “To see it joked about and made light of is preposterous. If we were talking about slaves and if they had a towel with chains, people would be upset.”
York, who has been a coach at the school for nine years, issued a Wednesday night response on his Facebook page, and he removed the scalp towel photo on Thursday afternoon. York wrote that he is not a racist.
“I offended a certain woman and her cause which I certainly didn’t mean to,” the baseball coach posted. “All that really meant was that was then this is now, but it has been turned/twisted around and now I am labeled something I am not … racist. I have stayed neutral in the mascot debate my whole career and to me it’s what the school board decides so my opinion doesn’t matter.”
He wrote, “I am not a racist that this person is portraying me out to be. I am a dad, a husband, family man and a coach. I am embarrassed that I have become a target and center of attention on a national debate, but it is what it is.”
The School Administrative District 54 board voted 11-9 in May to keep the Indians mascot and the official insignia of an Indian spearing a fish in the Kennebec River after hearing from people on both sides of the contentious issue, Superintendent Brent Colbry said Thursday in an email.
“The board took a vote last spring regarding the nickname issue and as a result we are following that directive,” Colbry said.
However, the high school, which still has “Home of the Skowhegan Indians” written on its welcome sign, has eliminated the use of the word Indians on uniforms and with sports booster items including the towels in question, which were discontinued years ago.
Colbry, who said York is a contracted coach and not an employee of the school district, said he could not discuss whether or not the coach was disciplined over the Facebook post.
“Personnel matters are confidential by statute, and I cannot comment on them,” the superintendent said.
The school board has invited its attorney to its October meeting and is expected to discuss the mascot controversy, among other items.
“That meeting … was a previously scheduled boardsmanship workshop for new board members and a refresher for longer standing members,” Colbry said.
Over the years, more than 30 Maine schools with Native names and mascots have changed them, with Scarborough High School, in 2001, being the first when it dropped “Redskins” in favor of “Red Storm.”
Smith said a lot of progress has been made over the years in Maine, but when coaches post inappropriate items online for anyone to read, and leave them up even after others have complained, it is unacceptable behavior.
“This type of racially charged behavior from those in your organization does not go unnoticed, and I hope for the sake of the kids in your community you will take a look at these images and give them some thought and attention,” Smith said in a letter sent to Colbry and the SAD 54 school board.
Smith said she hopes to accomplish two goals.
“In the short term, I would like to see the school board member and baseball coach issue some sort of apology. Blowing it away or pushing it under the rug is not going to cut it,” Smith said. “But the ultimate goal is to change the mascot. It’s 2015, and racism is just not acceptable.”