BANGOR – She was the new student at Sanford High, the junior transfer from Lewiston who was eager to fit in, ready to make new friends and take on a new identity. That’s why she raised her hand when word went around in the fall of 1986 that the school needed someone new to be the mascot.

“I thought it was great that I could be the living embodiment of Sanford pride,” said Michelle Bernard. “I’m part Lakota Sioux and part Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin.”

Sanford’s mascot was and remains an Indian. It’s nickname then and now is Redskins, and Bernard, in her desire to be accepted, bought into the image. Her father, a former Boy Scout leader, had once made an Indian headdress and leather leggings. Perfect.

Bernard looked at her audience Saturday at the Bangor Public Library. She was one of about 10 guests at a symposium. The subject was “Respectful or Disgraceful: Examining Maine School Use of Indian Nicknames and Mascots,” and she was bringing the issue to life.

“It took many years to discover I felt guilty. I had betrayed myself. I had become a cartoon character to my culture and my heritage.”

Bernard didn’t come to the symposium to preach. She’s an adjunct instructor of philosophy and speech at Husson University and its New England School of Communications. She has a long marriage to an Anglo husband in the Air Force. They have two children. They live in Milford, near Bangor. Her parents still live in Sanford.

She has been called a nuisance when she returns to Sanford and broaches the subject of the school’s nickname to administrators and people in the community. Redskins means bloody scalps. She hopes someday former neighbors and friends will drop the nickname. She’s not holding her breath.

In 1755 there was a price for Penboscot scalps, said James Francis, a Penobscot Nation historian. Men, women and children. White traders brought in pelts of fur and scalps.

“If you understand the history of the Penobscot people, there’s nothing to cheer,” said Francis, who once talked to Sanford students. “I told them, ‘I’m not here to change your mascot. I’m here to educate you. If you want to celebrate your mascot, that’s your problem.”

Amid the issues of climate change, wind farms, disasters, the loss of jobs, terrorism and heaven knows what else, the use of offensive nicknames and mascots can seem trivial.

No, said Ed Rice, a teacher, and author of “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis” and a symposium organizer. “There are so many problems we think we can’t fix. We can fix this one. It’s worth fixing.”

Rice’s greatest cause is getting the Cleveland Indians to drop their mascot, Chief Wahoo. The team has ignored a 10-year-old resolution passed by the Penobscots asking that Chief Wahoo get booted. According to Rice, the team has never communicated with the tribe, even though Sockalexis played for the Indians, and is honored by the team with a portrait plaque over its main entrance and is a Penobscot.

Instead, Rice can point to the dwindling number of nine Maine high schools and middle schools who have resisted change, with Sanford and Wiscasset at the top of the list. Sanford High wasn’t represented Saturday, but did send a letter to Rice, explaining that people in that community were talking. Wiscasset, also nicknamed the Redskins, declined comment.

Scarborough replaced Redskins with Red Storm less than 10 years ago. Old Town, adjacent to the Penobscot reservation, dropped Indians and switched to Coyotes.

In Old Town, the public hearings were contentious, said Jim Dill, a school board member at the time. In a world full of change, some cling to traditions even if it abuses the traditions and culture of others.

The Old Town school board voted unanimously.

At Nokomis High in Newport several years ago, school officials asked Penobscot leaders if their Warriors mascot was offensive. People can talk to each other.

“It’s beyond political correctness,” said Wayne Newell, a leader among the Passamaquoddys. “It’s the right thing to do.”

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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