March 29, 2020
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Maine’s do-nothing Board of Education needs to take on school mascot disrespect

BDN file | BDN
BDN file | BDN
Ed Rice of Orono, author of "Baseball's First Indian — Louis Sockalexis: A Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian."

I know many conservatives revere the notion of “local control.”

But I believe here in Maine, probably as a direct result of five combative, wholly divisive years of ultra-conservative LePage administration policies, we have come face to face with a very sinister version of this philosophy that merely allows elected officials to ignore injustice and abrogate governmental responsibility.

It is now a little more than one year into our campaign to get Skowhegan Area High School in SAD 54 to end its inappropriate use of a Native American nickname and mascot.

Shortly, the Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter movement will present the SAD 54 superintendent and school board a petition with around 1,000 signatures. It implores these school officials to, at long last, do the right thing, end the acrimony and end the disrespect to Maine’s indigenous population by ending this district’s slavish adherence to institutional racism.

Copies of the same petition will be presented to the Maine Principals Association and the Maine State Board of Education.

Yes, the Maine State Board of Education.

Over one year ago, we appealed to Martha Harris of Winterport, board chairwoman, to look into the matter. In a curt, wholly unfeeling response to my direct appeal for intervention, she stated that her board could do nothing. Maine, she bluntly replied, “is a local control state.”

We challenged Harris on the following points regarding her board’s own core responsibilities and guiding principles: the board has “the responsibility to advise the Commissioner of Education”; its mission is to provide “policy leadership” on public school issues and make recommendations to the state legislature; and it has, as a specific guiding principle, a mandate to help ensure a “safe” learning environment for this state’s students, an environment “in which they feel respected.”

On the latter point, we cited as evidence an American Psychological Association resolution, which states, citing social science research, that all students, not just Native American students, suffer from the presence of Native American nicknames and mascots.

We pointed out this very board’s counterparts in Washington and Oregon are actually leading the way to end public school use of Native American nicknames and mascots.

We were met, predictably, by silence.

I began my work on this campaign in May 2010 when I partnered with the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, or MITSC, to see if we could get nine Maine high schools that were still using Native American nicknames and mascots to come to a symposium and consider ending the practice. We also invited representatives from schools that had stopped.

At that time, I was excited by the notion that Maine could, quite easily, become the first state to end this insidious practice.

At the time, a website called the American Indian Sports Teams Mascots (www.aistm.org) claimed 30 Maine schools used such nicknames and mascots. But when I called each school in question, it was exhilarating to learn that many, in fact, no longer had them.

There were many unnamed heroes — individuals at more than 20 schools, in close to triple that number of communities — who came to an understanding that using such nicknames and mascots was degrading and that there was no reason to continue such disrespect.

One is Tim Doak, now superintendent for Regional School Unit 39, including Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm. At that time he was principal of Fort Kent Community High School, nicknamed “Warriors” with a huge American Indian head painted on its gym floor.

Working with his superintendent, school board, faculty, staff and students, Doak demonstrated true leadership. He led the successful drive for a generic use of the term “Warriors.”

Unfortunately, for each of these heroes on the frontlines in our schools, Maine is presently saddled with the worst imaginable set of state officials for matching such progressive thinking.

It seems we are stalled, as our Maine State Board of Education hides behind Harris’ simple declaration.

I sent individual emails to the board’s six other adult members (the panel also has two high school students): Peter Geiger of Lewiston, Nichi Farnham of Bangor, Jana Lapoint of Falmouth, Heidi Sampson of Alfred, Jane Sexton of Gorham and Ande Smith of North Yarmouth.

I pleaded for a response on the matter. Not one wrote back.

So, do we silently suffer and do nothing about our “do-nothing” state education board?

It’s absurd that it cannot even commend the schools that have stopped such usage. It’s cowardly that it cannot condemn the one school continuing such usage or encourage it to stop. And it’s a complete abrogation of responsibility to not advise our commissioner of education and state legislature to seek action.

Journalist and adjunct college instructor Ed Rice of Orono is the author of “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian.” He has a website, sockalexis.info.

 


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