Many people in the United States, including trademark authorities in the federal government, consider the word an offensive racial slur – a leftover from uglier days in American race relations.
Three elected officials in Wiscasset don’t see it that way, voting this week to grant a resident’s request to rename a road “Redskin’s Drive.”
The move comes four years after the town’s high school abandoned the nickname after vigorous lobbying from Maine’s Native American community.
Ashley Gagnon, who lives on the private way off Bradford Road, asked the select board Tuesday to make the change in honor of her former school.
The vote in favor of the change, which was first reported in the Wiscasset Newspaper, comes as the discussion about whether use of the pejorative term is acceptable in public life has reached a national stage.
Years of debate and litigation over the term – largely accepted as disparaging to American Indians – came to a head in June when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoked the trademark for the Washington, D.C., NFL team of the same name.
Ben Rines, one of the three selectmen who voted for the name, said it was in honor of the generations of Wiscasset High School graduates who identify with it, a group to which he belongs.
“As I said in the meeting Tuesday night, I am a native of Wiscasset and went through the Wiscasset schools and was a Wiscasset Redskin all my life, and I don’t see it as a disparaging word whatsoever,” Rines said. “Our heritage should be respected as much as any others.”
Asked what heritage he was referring to, Rines, who has no Native American ancestry, said “being a Wiscasset redskin.”
Newell Lewey, a Passamaquoddy Tribal Councilor, said he was sad, but not surprised, to see that thinly veiled racism continues unabated.
“So they’re actually naming a road after an act of genocide?” Lewey said, referring to use of the term to refer to the bloodied scalps of native people, for which there was a bounty in mid-18th century Maine.
“I’m not surprised, but it’s disgraceful,” he said.
When Wiscasset schools joined RSU 12, the school board changed the mascot to the Wolverines. Rines, however, said many still feel a kinship to the old name.
“If anyone was trying to use it in any way derogatorily, I wouldn’t put up with it,” he said. “I don’t think of it as a derogatory term, to be honest with you. I appreciate that other people do, but we don’t.”
In addition to Rines, Selectmen Bill Barnes and Jeff Merry voted in support of the road renaming. Select board member Pamela Dunning voted against it, and the fifth member, Jefferson Slack, abstained.
Dunning, Merry and Slack could not be reached for comment. A message left for Barnes on Thursday was not immediately returned.
According to the Wiscasset Newspaper, Gagnon was a 2002 graduate of the high school. A phone number for Gagnon could not be found Thursday.
Following the decision by the Patent and Trademark Office in June, the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram changed its editorial policy to avoid the term because of its pejorative connotations, only using it in stories about the controversy.
Since the trademark office’s ruling, the owner of the NFL team has defended the team’s name and attorneys for the team this week vowed to appeal.
Wiscasset first dealt with the issue in 2010, when the RSU 12 board decided to no longer use the term as the high school’s nickname.
During the public involvement process, Jamie Bissonette, chair of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, expressed her support for changing the mascot nickname.
Continuing to use the nickname “compromises (the school district’s) ability to fulfill its educational mission for every child, especially those of Native American ancestry,” Bissonette wrote in an August 2010 letter to the RSU 12 board chairman. She wrote later: “We believe nobody would purposely continue an action that could harm an entire people.”
Students and alumni protested the decision, and when asked about his feelings on the switch, Rines said he has always aligned himself with the old Wiscasset name.
“I didn’t grow up knowing or even thinking that redskin is a bad word,” he said. “It’s only since the politically correct police come along has it been a bad word. To me, redskin is synonymous with Wiscasset.”
Gagnon said she has some Native American ancestry, and wanted to show pride in her school and town, the newspaper reported.
She told the paper that use of the apostrophe would make the term less controversial.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at: