SKOWHEGAN — Are images of an American Indian as a sports team mascot a mockery or an honor?

Do the people that Skowhegan high school boosters think they are honoring as “Skowhegan Indians” think they are being honored, or are they insulted?

Both sides of that sensitive issue were raised Thursday night at a school board meeting attended by more 50 people — students, parents, retired educators and one police officer assigned to the meeting to make sure things did not get out of hand.

School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said the issue comes down to a single word — education — teaching people on both sides of the discussion what the other side is trying to say.

Colbry said he met privately for 45 minutes last week over a cup of coffee with Barry Dana, of Solon, a former chief of the Penobscot Nation, whose charged statements on racism and mascots have generated much discussion on the issue. Colbry said he also spoke with Dana on Thursday afternoon by phone.

“What came out of that meeting was that this issue, first and foremost, is an issue of education,” Colbry told the school board and the full house of visitors. “We want to educate each other, and we can’t come to a conclusion or a decision until both sides know what the other person is saying. The moral high ground on this issue is education.”

Colbry said the session with Dana led to brainstorming about what both men agreed was a deep-seated, serious issue to the community. He said it took a long time and a lot of publicity to get to that cup of coffee, and it will take a long time to come to a solution.

Possible answers include a Native American studies class at the high school and continuing public discourse on the matter, Colbry said.

“He helped me understand why that word is offensive,” he said. “I thought that it was encouraging. I thought it was a good place to say we understand each other, communicate with each other, using education to better understand each other. It was a good beginning.”

There is no time line and there are no demands for immediate action, Colbry said.

People in the audience Thursday night stood to express pride in the tradition of using “Indians” as a mascot for high school sports teams. Others said it is a civil rights issue and that use of American Indian images and names is offensive and they want it to change. They said the school district, without permission, has subverted the names of Native Americans into good-luck charms.

Dana and others in the state, including Ed Rice, adjunct instructor at the New England School of Communications at Husson University and the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, along with the Greater Bangor National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have said that the Indian image used by Skowhegan as a sports mascot should be removed. Such images and mascots already have been changed at many schools in Maine and elsewhere across the nation as awareness has grown.

Senior class president Jasmine Gordon said before Thursday’s meeting that she and other students are willing to listen to people who want the name changed, but to her the “Indians” is a way of respecting the people who lived for centuries on the banks of the Kennebec River, which runs through Skowhegan. Many also say it is an important school tradition.

Gordon said restrictions already have been imposed on use of the word “Indians” on apparel used by sports teams at the high school. She said headbands ordered for the basketball team that had “Skowhegan Indians” written on them this year were never used.

“They were told they were not allowed to wear them because they thought it was disrespectful; they couldn’t even sell them at the games,” Gordon said. “It’s really been a problem since the first day of school. Most of the students were upset that they were considering changing the name because we’ve been ‘Indians’ ever since we started school, and we feel like we’re kind of honoring our heritage and people are trying to take it away when all we want to do is try and represent them in a positive way, never in a negative way.”

Dana and others have said Indian people are not mascots and do not feel honored when sports teams use the name and image, whatever their intent.

Gordon said she and other students are willing to compromise and “think about how they feel” and possibly change the images.

“I would be upset, but I would obey what they had to say,” she said. “If we had to change, I would love to have something that represented our town, but I’m not sure what they would choose.”

During the annual Fun and Business Fair in the school gymnasium last month, Zachary Queenan, 17, a Skowhegan senior and track and field athlete who also spoke Thursday night, gathered signatures on a petition to keep Skowhegan the “Indians.” Some people who signed the petition said they had not given much thought to Dana’s and others’ point of view — that Indians are people, not mascots, and that many hundreds of thousands of native people died as a result of European settlement.

Debate about use of American Indian names as sports mascots and nicknames was made public locally in an article that appeared in the Morning Sentinel in May.

Discussions between Dana and Colbry continued into November, when Colbry said the school board would sit down with Dana and other tribal leaders in January to see what direction to go. SAD 54 consists of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

In a letter dated Feb. 9, accompanied by copies of a petition, Bangor NAACP President Michael Alpert said 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.

A week later, Colbry told Dana that their meeting would have to be postponed because of media attention to the issue.

Dana, John Bear Mitchell at the University of Maine, and other Penobscots fired back Feb. 17, saying resistance to the change from the Skowhegan community comes from a misunderstanding of what the image means to the tribes, and they hope to “foster a spirit of understanding.”

Mitchell is the Wabanaki Center Outreach and Student Development Coordinator and University of Maine System Native American Waiver Coordinator. He said people who support use of Indian images and nicknames for sports teams believe that mascots aren’t racist because they themselves aren’t offended and that “tradition” often is used to defend the mascots.

Others, including Gregory J. Domareki, of Skowhegan, a former chief judge of the Penobscot Indian Nation and former appellate judge of the Passamaquoddy Indian Nation, said in a letter to the editor that the “Skowhegan Town Seal beautifully depicts a Native American spearing fish at the Skowhegan falls. This is not a ‘town mascot.’ This is town history. Respecting and cherishing our heritage is not racism.”

Skowhegan selectmen last month declined to take up the issue, deferring to the school board to make a decision.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter: @Doug_Harlow