SKOWHEGAN — Whose heritage is honored by the Native American image and the name “Indians” for sports teams?

Is it the players, parents and boosters of Skowhegan Area High School who say the nickname is their tradition, their identity and their way of respecting Native Americans by channeling their strength and bravery in sports competition?

Or does the heritage belong to the native people who lived for centuries along the banks of the Kennebec River, only to be wiped out by disease, war and racism with the arrival of Europeans?

That was the question Monday night during a public forum on the continued use of the word “Indians” as a sports mascot, nickname or good luck charm.

Speakers at the forum appeared to be evenly divided for and against keeping the name.

The School Administrative District 54 board agreed to hold the forum, at which only residents of the school district and state legislators were allowed to speak.

Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes – all members of the umbrella Wabanaki federation in Maine – told a school board subcommittee April 13 that the use of the word Indians is an insult to Native Americans. Members of the four Indian tribes want the name changed. They say they are people and people are not mascots.

Each speaker was given two minutes to speak at Monday night’s forum, which was attended by more than 60 people.

Harold Bigelow of Skowhegan said there are Native Americans “who side with us” in support of keeping Skowhegan the Indians.

“The natives today are being compensated for their past with entitlements and free education,” Bigelow said. “I personally feel they ought to focus on their own problems within, rather than creating problems for others. It is definitely not racist. Do what is right – this is our history, not theirs.”

Mary Stuart of Canaan, a former SAD 54 teacher, stood to ask with a show of hands how many people in the audience were veterans. She then asked how many had relatives that were veterans. Many more hands were raised.

Stuart then said the people who are veterans get to say they are veterans – not their children and grandchildren – and it’s the same with American Indians.

“I am not a veteran, and we are not Indians,” she said.

School board members said last week that because tribal members had their chance to speak in April, that Monday’s forum was designed to give local people a chance to have their say.

The gymnasium at Skowhegan Area Middle School filled before the meeting with people holding signs saying “Retire the Mascot” and others wearing Skowhegan Indians baseball caps in support of keeping the name.

John Alsop of Cornville called for the elimination of the mascot name.

“I contend that if we wish to honor the Indians as we say that we do, we should start first by listening to them,” Alsop said. “If they say they do not want their heritage, their traditions, their culture and identity used as a mascot, then I think we should do as they ask. We should respect their point of view as friends.”

Judy York of Skowhegan disagreed, saying she grew up in poverty, just like many other people in the area, including the Native Americans. She said discussion on continued use of the word is all about a name. The school has dropped all of the offensive images of the past, York said.

“We no longer have the images on the shirts, fields or courts, so what is the problem?” York asked. “We have Indians on the brochures for tourism, so what is the difference? It’s who we are.”

Resident Sean Poirier agreed.

“We take pride in our community,” Poirier said. “We will be forever more Skowhegan Indians.”

Some said it was time to start a new tradition, one based on the actual history of Skowhegan and the Kennebec River. Others said the tradition of Skowhegan Indian pride was here to stay.

Skowhegan is one of the only high schools left in Maine with an Indian mascot, bucking a national trend to end racial stereotyping of American Indians 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. In 2011, Wiscasset High School and Sanford High School eliminated the Redskins nickname. Wiscasset teams are now known as the Wolverines, while Sanford athletes are the Spartans.

In Old Town, the nickname Indians was dropped and Coyotes was adopted.

The SAD 54 school board will discuss the matter at its regular meeting Thursday, possibly leading to a vote on the issue.