SKOWHEGAN — The president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP has formally asked school officials in Skowhegan to stop using the Indian name and image as a mascot for sports teams.

In a letter dated Friday, accompanied by copies of a petition, NAACP President Michael Alpert writes that his organization is dedicated to “universal civil rights and to the eradication of all forms of racism” — including use of the Indian mascot, which he called a symbol of racism.

“The implications of cultural violence embedded in Skowhegan High School’s nickname and mascot are deeply offensive to native people,” Alpert writes. “Just as important, the nickname and mascot degrades your community’s standing. This is a problem that, with good will, could easily be resolved. In fact, this is an opportunity for your community to respect itself by coming to terms with the need for change.”

Alpert said the NAACP is acting in support of efforts already underway by Barry Dana of Solon, the former chief of the Penobscot Nation, and Ed Rice, of Orono and New Brunswick, a journalist, adjunct college instructor and author who has campaigned for the name change.

“We’re in support of the tribe’s effort to have what I believe is the last remaining school with this racist nickname still in evidence — still there,” Alpert said by phone Monday.

Several Maine high schools and junior high schools have dropped Indian nicknames in recent years. While many in Skowhegan believe the Indian mascot is a symbol of honor and respect, others say it is one of disrespect.

“Collectively the saying is, ‘We are not mascots — native people are not mascots,'” Dana said Monday. “We’re proud of who we are, and we do not agree that we can be honored by anyone else other than ourselves. It is not up to another race, without our permission, to attempt to honor us through their perspective of what we are supposed to stand for.”

Alpert’s letter and petition signatures, gathered during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Orono, were sent to School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry and to high school principal Monique Poulin.

Colbry said Monday he had not yet received the letter, but that he has been in touch with Dana and will authorize a “small conversation” of school staff and representatives from Maine tribes to address the issue. Last November, in response to an inquiry by Rice, Colbry said school officials would have an “informal conversation with some Native American representatives” about the issue early this year.

“It’s not my decision to make. It’s really a community and a board decision,” Colbry said Monday. “We’re sensitive to that, and we’re willing to talk to some folks about that. We’ve reached out to the Native American community and say we’d be happy to have a conversation about that and get their feelings and we’re in the process of trying to do that.”

Colbry said he is waiting for Dana to assemble the people he would like to have present during the meeting, but a date has not yet been scheduled. Dana said he sent Colbry an email last week saying he and other tribal leaders are ready to meet.

Defending use of the school mascot, Colbry has said the American Indian imagery goes beyond the school and encompasses the entire town of Skowhegan and the history and heritage of the whole region of the Kennebec River. Skowhegan is an Abnaki word meaning “a place to watch.”

Poulin, who was named principal at the start of school in September, said she received the letter from Alpert Monday and agreed with Colbry, saying the conversation needs to happen in the community and with area Indian representatives there.

“We’re ready to meet any time to better understand their position and to really try to problem-solve the issue,” Poulin said. “When people talk to me in the community, there is mixed opinions on the matter, but I find it difficult to speak about it without really knowing the perspective from the Native American population.”

Poulin, though, said she objects to a portion of Alpert’s letter that references “your prior administrative decision to maintain offensive names.” Poulin said she has never made any decision on the images or names of the high school’s sports mascots.

EARLIER CONCERNS

Discontent over the Indian mascot is not new for Skowhegan schools.

The school board’s Educational Policy and Program Committee voted in 2001 to keep the Indian name and propose a single American Indian symbol to represent the teams. The SAD 54 board had debated the issue for two years after receiving a letter from the American Indian Movement in 1999. The letter called the use of the high school’s mascot offensive.

A committee of high school staff and students in 2001 also surveyed 800 students and staff and found the majority felt that the use of the name “Indians” was not disrespectful, although many of the American Indian symbols, including murals and a wooden sculpture in the cafeteria, did not reflect the tribes from the area.

Another problem was that a mascot head with oversized facial features had been used at athletic events. School board directors banned use of that head after parents complained.

In Skowhegan, the image of the American Indian on the rocks by the river dates to a school art project in 1929 and is prominently displayed in murals inside the Skowhegan Opera House and on the town seal.

A 62-foot sculpture of an Indian by Maine artist Bernard Langlais, near downtown, depicts an Indian with a weir, or fishing net.

‘OPENLY OFFENSIVE’

Skowhegan Area High School has not been alone among schools in Maine struggling with American Indian imagery as sports mascots.

The first Maine school to change was Scarborough High School in 2001. The school dropped Redskins in favor of Red Storm.

Husson University eliminated the Braves nickname and became the Eagles. Wiscasset High School and Sanford High School eliminated the Redskins nickname, and Wiscasset teams are now the Wolverines, while Sanford athletes are the Spartans.

Nokomis Regional High School in Newport still has an image of an arrowhead with a round insignia showing an Indian head with two feathers in front of the school. Its school nickname is the Warriors.

Greg Potter, superintendent of Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, which includes Nokomis, said in November the American Indian image has not been dropped entirely at the high school, but has been incorporated along with other images in a kind of coat of arms to represent the district and its history.

Wells High School’s mascot is still the Warriors and the image is still under consideration, a school board member said in November.

Schneider said last year that Wells was in the process of phasing out Native American imagery to become a more neutral Warriors.

Meanwhile, the NAACP letter says the organization is standing by tribal efforts to “resolve this issue once and for all” with the Skowhegan mascot and nickname.

“We realize that, in the past, Maine schools ignored symbols of racism as a matter of custom,” the letter states. “But we all know that openly offensive symbols of racism need to disappear from schools and from all other areas of Maine’s civic life.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow