SKOWHEGAN — People gathered in a circle Monday on the shore of Lake George Regional Park, taking turns speaking about peace, love and goodwill and asking the government to stop recognizing Columbus Day, which is a federal holiday.

Later in the day, members of the Skowhegan Indian Pride group held a rally to celebrate their history as Skowhegan Indians, the nickname and mascot of Skowhegan Area High School sports teams.

While neither rally was held to directly address the volatile school nickname issue – Skowhegan is the last high school in Maine to have a nickname that the state’s American Indians consider offensive – the controversy hung over both rallies.

The Indigenous Peoples Day event, part of a national movement, was the second to have been held in Skowhegan, and organizers made it clear the gathering of about 60 people had nothing to do with the mascot controversy. The purpose was to shift what American Indians see as the focus from Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of America to celebrating the people who were here before he arrived in The Bahamas in 1492.

Barry Dana of Solon, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, said he didn’t believe that the Skowhegan Indian Pride rally was deliberately held on Columbus Day to insult those who take issue with the nickname.

But before the rally, he said, “Haters call us overly sensitive … and shout about ‘all this political correctness.’

“Truth is, we are sensitive to our culture and want a peaceful future for our children and grandchildren,” he added. “And to correct institutionalized racism is not a bad thing. Institutionalized racism is when the act being carried out against others has happened for such a long time that no one knows anymore that it was wrong when it first happened.”

SUPPORTING THE MASCOT

Later Monday, about 35 Indian Pride supporters gathered in front of the Skowhegan Indian sculpture in Langlais Park downtown.

At a small tent, donations of pet supplies for the local animal shelter and food items for the soup kitchen were collected and black and orange hats, T-shirts and signs – the school’s colors – were raffled off.

Event organizer Jennifer Poirier said the rally was to show the “positive community spirit” that members of the group share.

She said the fact it was held on Columbus Day, a holiday American Indians find insulting, “is a non-issue.”

“They were going to have an issue with it regardless of what day we have it on,” Poirier said. “The media has kind of put things out of proportion. Skowhegan Indian Pride to me means – it’s our heritage, it’s our town, it’s our coming together as a community, it’s what we’re about.”

She said she chose Columbus Day for the rally because it was a day off from work and school for a lot of people.

Those who think the rally’s timing is an insult to Indians are “entitled to their own opinion – that’s the beauty of America,” she said.

Poirier, a member of the School Administrative 54 board of directors, said the issue of the sports nickname was settled in May with an 11-9 school board vote to keep the name.

“As a group we joined together months ago to fight for our high school name, which we held and still hold dearly in our hearts to this day,” she said.

She said the issue of the sports nickname has gone beyond initial debate to include threats of boycotts of local businesses that support the name, people coming under attack for their personal views and even threats against the iconic Langlais sculpture.

“Our group has grown and so has our mission,” Poirier said, noting the group’s fundraising for local people in need, including a family the group has adopted for Christmas.

Michael Turner, of Skowhegan, said he showed up Monday to support the Skowhegan Indian Pride group as did the others present for the rally.

“I’m just here for the support of the Skowhegan Indians fans and to defend our right to call ourselves the Indians,” he said.

‘WE’RE STILL HERE’

Those at the Lake George rally included people of different races and religions who gathered to celebrate the indigenous people of Maine and elsewhere and their cultures, families, history and heritage.

Cheryl Seamans, a high school drama teacher from Athens, spoke emotionally, saying she has always felt an “extreme sense of guilt for what my ancestors probably did.”

“I’ve always been amazed at what was left out of our history here – it wasn’t in the books,” Seamans said of the history of Columbus and the rape, slavery, disease and genocide that came with the arrival of white Europeans. “Respect for people of other cultures – we’ve got to have that.”

Dana said there was no format and no agenda for the gathering. He said the people assembled Monday were there to “celebrate nativeness” and “do something constructive” on what is a federal holiday for many Americans.