Thursday’s meeting of the Regional School Unit 54 school board unfolded in the same way a number of other school board meetings in Skowhegan have in recent years: It started with a lengthy, impassioned debate about the district’s mascot, the Indians.
A vocal segment of residents want to keep it, saying it represents years of town heritage. Another, equally vocal segment of district residents, alongside many more Native American people and organizations, remain firmly opposed to the name, arguing that it is racist and demeaning.
The debate is still far from settled after Thursday’s meeting in the last school district in the state to retain a Native mascot.
Arguments have regularly erupted on social media in recent years, and people on both sides of the issue have made threats of violence. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine issued a statement condemning the continued use of the Indians mascot, and Gov.-elect Janet Mills weighed in before Thursday’s school board meeting, writing in a letter to school board members that she supported the mascot change.
Ultimately, the board decided to hold a public forum Jan. 8 to allow more people to speak on the issue, though it is unclear whether a vote will take place. School board chair Dixie Ring and Superintendent Brent Colbry didn’t respond to requests for comment. Absent a school board vote, supporters of a mascot change say they’re starting to look at legislative options.
A difficult history
The town of Skowhegan’s history with Native peoples — specifically, with the Norridgewock tribe of the Abenaki — stretches back centuries, and like many shared histories between Native people and Europeans, it is fraught with violence.
Most notably, in 1724, at least 30 Norridgewock Abenaki people were massacred by white settlers in what is now Skowhegan. Most of the remaining Natives who lived along that part of the Kennebec River fled east, to what became Penobscot tribal lands, though there are still people living in the Skowhegan area who can trace Native ancestry back through those generations.
Despite that violent past, Skowhegan — an Abenaki word that roughly translates to “watching place for fish” — has, centuries on, come to incorporate Native imagery into its identity as a town. The 62-foot sculpture of a Native American, created by sculptor Bernard Langlais and erected in 1969 to commemorate both Maine’s 150th anniversary and Native peoples, is an icon of the town. The town seal features a Native person. And the school mascot is an Indian.
“Our town name is an Indian word. Do we have to change that? Our town logo is an Indian fishing. A person fishing should not be an offense. Do we have to change that?” Skowhegan resident Judi York said at the meeting. “Our heritage in this town is based on respect for the people who lived here before. Do we obliterate all reference and acknowledgement of the people who lived here?”
Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and perhaps the most prominent voice on the mascot issue statewide, said that a school mascot is different from a work of public art, or a town seal, or a town name that comes directly from the Native people who lived in the area 300 years ago.
“The statue was commissioned specifically to honor the Native heritage here. The word is a Native word,” Dana said. “That is a very different thing from a sports mascot.”
Jennifer Poirier, a school board member and the moderator of a mascot-supporting private Facebook group called Skowhegan Indian Pride, takes issue with characterizing her support of the mascot as racist. It’s a tribute to Native people, she said, and people who want it to change simply do not understand that.
“Anyone voicing support for the name is labeled a racist or said to be uneducated, because their opinions are not the same as those pushing for change,” said Poirier, who said she has received threatening messages from those opposed to the name. “People can choose to see negative and feel offended, or they can choose to see the honor, pride and good intent of the Skowhegan Indian name.”
Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.
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