The controversy over Skowhegan High School’s use of the name “Indians” continued Thursday night as both sides presented what might be their last chance for public testimony before the Maine School Administrative District 54 school board takes action.
The room was evenly divided between mascot supporters on one side, and opponents on the other. Many held signs and said the issue would not be “going away.” The board offered limited opportunity for testimony from both sides, with two to three representatives allowed to speak.
“It does not educate about us,” Penobscot ambassador Maulian Dana told the board. “And it is past the time to eradicate this outdated and problematic practice of stealing another group’s cultural identity and flying in the face of our respectful request that you stop doing so.”
“We’re not responsible for the way they interpret what we use as our school mascot. If they’re offended, that’s too bad,” Michelle Kelso said. Kelso said she also has a right to her identity as a local person who spent four of what she describes as the “best” years of her life as a Skowhegan High School “Indian.” Neither the name nor the mascot were ever meant to be offensive she says, but she also says that, sometimes, getting offended is just a fact of life.
“I’m offended by things too. I’m not much for certain things that have been voted on. But if it doesn’t physically harm me, it’s not my business. If it doesn’t physically harm my family, it’s not my business.”
Dana with the Penobscot Nation says she is not surprised by views such as Kelso’s. “I find that working with mascots and other social justice things, when you present people with a behavior they might be doing ‘wrong’ they become defensive and either they learn how to change that behavior or they double down and continue that behavior, and that’s where we are with Skowhegan with some of the people.”
Opponents of the Skowhegan High School Indians name have said that legal action is likely should the school board choose to retain it. Such names and mascots, they say, create a hostile learning environment for native students, and may constitute a civil rights violation, a message reinforced by the presence of Zachary Heiden, legal director with the ACLU of Maine.
Heiden told the school board Thursday that it has the opportunity to make Maine the first state in the country to abandon all school-sanctioned use of Native American mascots and themes. A court case, he said, would be very expensive for the district. “I’m asking you to retire the mascot.”
Supportive of the Indians name, however, was Kathy LeBrun, who identifies as Passamaquoddy. She told the board that Ambassador Dana did not speak for all native people. “Not one person in my family has said anything about being offended,” LeBrun said.
Furthermore, she said she thought the issue was settled when the board voted to retain the name in 2015, and she wants to see more attention paid to native tribes, not less. “Add more Native American history of the Maine tribes in the school, and please keep the Indian name and image. Remember my ancestors. Don’t wipe them out again.”
But some on the board say it’s time to move on. “In 2015 I was on the side of, ‘No way, we’re not changing.’ But I’ve changed my mind,” says school board chair Dixie Ring. Ring says the overwhelming message she’s heard from students has been in support of a name change, and from a board perspective, Ring says it’s time to focus on more pressing business. “The board should be directing policies and such, as well as the budget. This is just taking away time to do that.”
The MSAD 54 school board plans to take up the matter, perhaps for the last time, in a public work session at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.