The foyer to Wells High School’s athletic center prominently displays the school’s mascot. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

WELLS — School Committee members and town residents will begin to wrestle with the future of Wells High School’s Native American mascot at a meeting Thursday night.

Some residents say the town’s integrity was impugned when Amelia Tuplin, a full-blooded Micmac from Lisbon, sent a letter to the school’s district superintendent accusing fans and players of mocking Native Americans with offensive stereotypes during an Oct. 13 football game at Wells High. Superintendent James P. Daly conducted an investigation and absolved those at the game of intentionally engaging in demeaning behavior.

For many in town, the atmosphere at football games is based on tradition that has been attacked by someone outside the community. They do not want changes made to the high school’s Warriors nickname or to its logo, the profile of a Native American with feathers and braided hair that is found at the school’s football field and gymnasium.

“My mindset is, it does not pigeonhole Native Americans,” said Chuck Fitzpatrick, 52, the father of a Wells football player. “I don’t believe imagery stereotypes anyone, Native American or otherwise. To have an individual attack a town, students, teachers, a team, it’s just wrong.”

James Crothers, 16, a Wells High junior, said, “It’s just been a part of the school. That’s who we are. That’s how we should stay.”

In her Oct. 16 letter to Daly, Tuplin wrote that “chants, fake drums, war paint, dance and hand over mouth sounds were embarrassing to watch and downright hurtful. This behavior is culturally insensitive, distasteful and downright racist.”

Tuplin attended the game to cheer on her son, Lucas Francis. He is Lisbon’s quarterback.

On Wednesday, Tuplin said she has received “a lot of personal messages and emails attacking me personally” since her letter received media attention. She quickly added, however, “I’ve also received a lot of positive messages from students, alumni and parents of Wells, and from around the state, that are supportive.”

A Native American-themed logo adorns the Wells High School press box behind a crowd of cheering fans during Friday’s game between the Wells Warriors and Oak Hill. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Thursday’s School Committee meeting marks the first time the board will publicly discuss possible changes to the nickname and logo.

“We are in the beginning stages of creating a subcommittee to engage in community discussion,” Daly said. “We have already met with several groups to discuss the issue. We have reached out to others to invite folks into the discussion. The process will be thoughtful and take some time.”

COMPLAINT TRIGGERS TOWN DEBATE

Tuplin does not plan to attend the meeting, but she is encouraged that discussion about the school’s mascot is moving into a public forum.

“Basically there’s not much I can do at this point in regards to what they do in their town,” Tuplin said. “I think the dust needs to settle, I really do. As some dialogue starts, hopefully some who are supportive of the change will make the change happen. It’s a community issue at this point and they have to make the decision based on how they want to be viewed.”

If similar discussions in other Maine communities over the past 16 years are an indication, any attempt to rescind Wells’ longtime mascot will be hotly debated.

Wells, Skowhegan (Indians) and Nokomis of Newport (Warriors) are the only Maine high schools still using Native American imagery in support of their athletic teams.

These signs are hung on light poles along the driveways at Wells High School. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In 2001, the United States Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Native American mascots in non-native schools because they teach “all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable.” Four years later, the American Psychological Association called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots” because the mascots teach “misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians.” More than 100 other organizations representing civil rights, educational, athletic and scientific professionals have made similar statements.

“We’ve got a situation where there are three schools playing games with this,” said Ed Rice, a vocal activist working to eliminate Native American mascots in Maine. “The mascot flagrantly using an Indian head is inappropriate. Is ‘Warriors’ a problem? Of course it’s not if you are using a generic use of it. They might say (in Wells), ‘Oh, there’s not an Indian head on our uniforms,’ but there is a tacit connection” when such imagery is used in or in connection with the school.

PAST QUESTIONING OF INDIAN MASCOTS

Skowhegan High’s school board narrowly voted to retain the “Indians’ nickname in 2015 after months of debate and public forums. Representatives from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes in Maine told a subcommittee that the use of “Indians” is an insult to them. A member of the Penobscot Nation filed a complaint about the Skowhegan nickname with the Maine Human Rights Commission, but no action was taken.

Two weeks ago, Tuplin said she planned to file a complaint with the rights commission because she believes Daly’s investigation was rushed and incomplete. On Wednesday she said she is continuing to pursue that option and is seeking legal representation.

Wells High School cheerleaders sport newly designed T-shirts for last Friday’s football game against Oak Hill. The Wells Warriors mascot and logos, which incorporate Native American imagery in various ways, have come under fire since a scathing letter from a Native American woman whose on played recently on the opposing team. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In Wells, a “warrior head” appeared on the cover of the high school yearbook, “The Abenakis,” (later shortened to “The Abenaki”) in 1946. The logo is first seen in yearbook photos of boys’ athletic teams in 1953.

In a 2014 newspaper article, then-Superintendent Ellen (Schneider) Halliday said Wells was in the process of “quietly” phasing out Native American imagery. Halliday resigned as the district’s superintendent in May 2015, before completion of extensive high school renovations.

Halliday, now the superintendent of Houlton-based RSU 29, said Rice asked her what Wells’ intentions were regarding its mascot. She then consulted then-Principal Daly, who told her Wells was slowly phasing out the “warrior head” imagery. Further, Halliday said Native American imagery in renovated areas, as well as attaching a feather to the red ‘W’ logo, were not “in place or in the plans” during her tenure.

Daly disputed Halliday’s recollection, emphasizing that the former superintendent made one statement to a newspaper and never made a decision regarding, or initiated a review of, the mascot. Minutes from the June 4, 2014, School Committee meeting support Daly’s recollection. At that meeting, Halliday said she had not spoken to the newspaper, and Daly said he had not heard of any “phasing out of the warrior head” during his seven years as principal.

A PART OF TOWN HISTORY IN WELLS

Local business owner Lee Talevi supports use of the Warrior image. Like many, she believes it is a piece of the town’s history.

“Yes, it should stay,” said Talevi, 51. “For this town it represents the Warrior spirit and the strength of the Warriors, and I don’t think it reflects bigotry at all.”

George Holdsworth, 50, said Tuplin’s views are not grounds for change.

“I’m not saying it’s unreasonable to complain but … does that mandate that I must do something about it?” he said. “Does your discomfort impart upon me a mandate to change?”

Harry Tomah, 79, has lived in Wells since 1966 when he started a 37-year career as a high school social studies teacher, retiring in 2003. A Native American of the Maliseet tribe, Tomah said he began trying to work behind the scenes to eliminate the Native American imagery when he was adviser to the student council in the 1980s and 1990s. During that time the students took a vote in favor of keeping the mascot.

“I feel the same way today and I’ve brought it up on several occasions,” Tomah said. “It’s not appropriate because it offends a large portion of the Indian community and also gives a mistaken, distorted view that we’re all still 19th century plains Indians. That’s not true. We’re doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at:

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