November 19, 2017
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Maine high schools retain Indian mascots despite controversy

By Kassadi Moore, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Over 30 Maine schools were once represented by Indian-themed sports mascots. Now, there are only a handful.

They include the Skowhegan Indians, along with Nokomis High School of Newport, Wells High School and Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook — all of which use Warriors as their nickname.

Skowhegan Area High School has received criticism from Maine tribes and other groups for retaining its mascot. But for many people there, they find their identity in being the Indians.

“I think this is really a challenging issue because I 100 percent understand and appreciate the importance of community identity, and that gets tied up with school district mascots,” said Jordan LaBouff, a social psychology professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

LaBouff studied the impact of Indian-related mascots with recent UMaine graduate Andrew Tomer. The two last year wrote an opinion piece for the Bangor Daily News concerning Skowhegan’s mascot.

“What we see looking at both the literature and the outcomes of students in the districts, (is that) Native American students, in particular, suffer educational, emotional and social outcomes when they’re in districts that have these stereotypical Native mascots,” said LaBouff.

Tomer, a member of the Penobscot Nation, was surprised that the School Administrative District 54 school board, which includes Skowhegan, did not vote to change the mascot in 2015.

Last year a group called “Not Your Mascot, Maine” petitioned the SAD 54 school board asking that the Indian mascot to be changed, according to a previous Bangor Daily News report. The group gathered nearly 1,000 online signatures before going to the school board.

“When our representatives went down there to present their argument of their cases, they made it quite clear that this isn’t the way that we should be represented,” Tomer said. “It’s not a very accurate representation.”

There was no response to calls or emails for comment about the issue made to the SAD 54 superintendent of schools, the chairman and vice chair of the school board, or the Skowhegan High School principal.

LaBouff said such representations contribute to the stereotype of Native Americans being “historically frozen.” Many Indian mascots are depicted wearing headdresses, which have special significance.

“[The headdress represents] peace, and it’s meant to be worn by a leader, and it’s not something that is worn every day with regular clothing; it’s a very special item,” Tomer said.

Indian mascots are also presented as being warriors and “savages” or “bloodthirsty.”

The misrepresentation of Native Americans can make people of that culture feel “invisible,” LaBouff said. Studies have shown that the psychological implications of being misrepresented makes Native Americans feel less positive with fewer aspirations.

“When you try to keep people in those historical boxes, and they aren’t seen as humans, they get seen as a memberless group,” LaBouff said.

“[The mascots] are fundamentally racist because they are presenting a group in a way which is beneath that of a majority group and are only being presented in one particular fashion,” Tomer said. ”It’s also in an inferiority sort of way, like, we’re reduced down to these stereotypes of being vicious and bloodthirsty or aggressive.”

Numerous studies and outreach by tribal groups has prompted legal action to be taken beyond the school and state level.

The National Football League’s Washington Redskins have been battling Native American groups legally to keep their mascot name for about 25 years, according to a story in the Washington Post.

In late June, the organization retained its right to use the nickname after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Asian-American rock group, the Slants. The trademark for “Slants” had been denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office based on the disparagement clause of federal trademark law.

The clause mandates that a trademark not be granted if it disparages or belittles people, groups or races. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also cited that law in an attempt to prevent the Washington Redskins from registering the Redskins logo and trademarks.

An opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito stated that the law precluding the registration of offensive marks, such as Slants and Redskins, is improper under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

According to the Supreme Court, it is the team’s right to use its mascot, no matter how offensive it may be deemed.

The effects of the Supreme Court ruling trickle down from the Washington Redskins to the Skowhegan Indians.

The mascot of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians is “Chief Wahoo.” That character was inspired by Old Town native Louis Sockalexis, who in 1897 became the first Native American to play in the big leagues.

“Out of the use of the nickname came this horrible, racist, symbol Chief Wahoo,” said Ed Rice, a retired journalist, teacher and activist for eliminating Indian-related mascots.

He taught Cross-Cultural Journalism at New England School of Communication in Bangor, and was an instructor at the University of Maine in Orono, Doane College in Nebraska and Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor.

“I talk frequently to my students about being Jewish and about being aware of anti-Semitism,” said Rice, who is Jewish. “I grew up with [anti-Semitism] in the Greater Bangor area.”

Later in his career, in an attempt to defend the honor of Sockalexis and Maine tribes, he joined the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

Rice hopes the Maine State Board of Education will embrace the Indian mascot issue as the Oregon Board of Education did in 2012 when it gave schools two years to change mascots with names that were disparaging.

The Maine State Board of Education has instead left such decisions up to the schools, allowing them to exercise their First Amendment rights.

The movement to eliminate potentially offensive Native American mascots has continued to gain ground during the past decade.

Robert A. Clark, the President of Husson University in Bangor, said his school was able to avoid the controversy. Husson used Braves as its athletics mascot from 1967 until 2004.

“The Braves were the mascot of the institution for a long time based on the history between the Penobscot Indians and the university and there was this sense of, how do we move forward institutionally?” said Clark.

Clark, who became Husson’s president in 2010, said the transition to Eagles had already taken hold by then.

“I think it’s how you involve individuals in the process, because change that evolves is different than, OK, we just all the sudden changed it to something else this summer and nobody really had any input,” said Clark.

Husson officials considered 100 mascot alternatives over a period of three years. The process was organized by a nine-member committee that included Warren Caruso, the men’s basketball head coach.

“I’m confident that [the use of Braves as the mascot] wasn’t an issue,” said Caruso. “We made that change and adjustment ahead of the curve.”

The committee narrowed the mascot possibilities, then polled the students. “Eagles” won the vote, and the board of trustees made the mascot official in 2004.

“When you had something in place while you were part of the institution, particularly the athletic side of things, and whether you’re an acorn or whatever mascot you want to name, you take great pride in that,” said Caruso. “So our alumni had pride in being the Braves … but as time goes by, everyone adapts.”

Several Maine high schools have done away with their Native American nicknames. Scarborough schools in 2001 changed their mascot from the Redskins to Red Storm, while Wiscasset traded Warriors for Wolverines in 2011 and Sanford ditched Redskins in favor of Spartans in 2012.

Even Old Town High School, located only 1.6 miles from the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, made the move from Indians to Coyotes in 2006.

Those decisions have come with a mix of criticism and praise from people living in and around those communities.

Jeff Bellino, a Scarborough High School alumnus, is on the fence.

“I understand it a little more why Native Americans found that [Redskins nickname] offensive, but I don’t think that was the intent,” said Bellino. “I think it was intended to represent pride, courage and that type of thing.”

Bellino said it is important to look at the definition of the terms used as mascots. The origin of the term “Redskins” has been argued by linguists, according to the Washington Post, but the first unchallenged use of the term came in 1769 when the British were battling the Native Americans for what is now the United States.

“I don’t think anybody named the team, named the mascot, Redskins to be offensive, but over time, just like everything, we’re finding out that a lot of the history has different meaning to different folks, especially those who are Native Americans,” said Bellino.

He said schools should work with Native Americans to find a compromise, but he doesn’t believe that Indian mascots should abolished altogether.

“I was very loyal to the Redskin, Indian [mascot], because there’s a lot of history in Scarborough,” said Bellino, who is surprised that with so much focus on Indian-related mascots, others such as the Lewiston “Blue Devils” have been ignored.

“How could you depict a school as the devil?” he asked.

The idea of schools and communities making the decision on their own is the one thing on which most people can agree. Tomer said if a decision is mandated from a higher level of authority, it can create even more tension.

“In a sense, the people that have to make the change are being victimized because they feel like they are being controlled rather than having control of their own actions,” Tomer said.

LaBouff said although the Supreme Court ruling made the mascot names legal, it doesn’t change the negative impacts of the Indian-related mascots.

“Just because we can use speech that is harmful for others, just because speech is protected, doesn’t mean it’s valuable,” LaBouff said.

Tomer, LaBouff and Rice agree that the ideal solution would be for each school in Maine, and the rest of the U.S., to reach agreement with tribes and change the mascots.

All said if a change isn’t made in the foreseeable future, state or national government should step in to protect the students.

Rice said the First Amendment protection of the rights should not be altered in any way. He said Indian names could be seen as fighting words — expression not protected by the First Amendment.

“I would argue that to a Native American that finds this offensive, this would be just like screaming the n-word at a black person or the s-word at a Puerto Rican,” said Rice. “I mean, there are some words that you just, you don’t use.”


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