No one would deny that our education system is responsible for protecting environments that promote learning and development for all students. Yet this noble goal is diminished for all students by the perpetuation of cultural symbols that demean the Native American identity.
The school board for School Administrative District 54, which includes Skowhegan Area High School, and the Maine State Board of Education are failing to create safe, welcoming and equal educational environments for their students by maintaining the Skowhegan Indians mascot.
Against formal opposition from tribal leaders and citizens from across the state, the SAD 54 board voted 11 to 9 to maintain the mascot last year. Similarly, the Maine State Board of Education ignored tribal and citizen appeals by refusing to consider a statewide ban on such mascots. As a result, Maine’s chapter of Not Your Mascot, a grass-roots group addressing the misappropriation of indigenous identity and culture, presented a 1,000-signature petition to the Skowhegan-area school board asking again that the mascot be changed.
Native American mascots are fundamentally racist and create hostile and less successful learning environments for Native people. Even if the boards are relatively unconcerned with the mascot’s offensiveness, they must be concerned with the educational and personal consequences on their students and communities. In fact, the Maine State Board of Education’s guiding principles explain that “all students learn best in a well-constructed, safe environment in which they feel respected.”
Native American mascots have personal and academic consequences for Native students. Systematic research demonstrates that Native American mascots harm Native American students’ self-esteem, their feelings of value in their communities and their belief in their professional potential — the opposite of what school boards should be working to promote. These consequences are consistent with decades of research concluding that stereotypes hurt their targets academically, personally and professionally — even if those stereotypes are “ positive.”
Native mascots perpetuate the stereotypically “ historically frozen” perception of Native people, leaving Native students and community members feeling out of place and time — unheard and unrepresented. This perception of irrelevance is amplified by the SAD 54 board’s claims that the mascot is intending to “honor” Native people, as if they, rather than Native Americans themselves, are best able to determine what honors and what dishonors.
Although these immediate consequences are important, Maine’s success as a state depends upon open cooperation between state institutions and tribes. If local or state boards of education support the requested removal of Native mascots, it will promote a culture of respect and improve communication on other critical issues with Maine’s tribal communities.
Perhaps most importantly, successful education is critical to the growth of Maine’s economy. If local or state boards reject Native mascots, they can produce better prepared workers and promote job growth by removing a barrier to success for some of the most at-risk students in Maine.
Citizens across Maine should contact local and state education board officials to ask that they promote a safe, supportive and equal environment in Maine schools by removing the Indians mascot. They can write or call the SAD 54 board and the State Board of Education to ask that they support successful education that is equal and welcoming for all students.
When the boards choose to support the tribes and their students in this way, it ultimately will help create a more stable and positive relationship between Maine’s tribes and its citizens, as well as foster a positive educational environment for all of Maine’s students.
Andrew Tomer is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Maine. Jordan LaBouff is an assistant professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine.