Backlash to Skowhegan Chamber’s ‘hunt the Indian’ game could prompt positive change

Earlier this month, the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce announced a town-wide game of “Hunt the Indian.” The fact that anyone could have possibly thought this was a fun and socially-acceptable activity (or didn’t care how deeply offensive it actually was) shows how much context is still lacking from our conversations about the treatment of indigenous people in Maine.

First, some history: In the 1700s, there was a proclamation issued by the government of England that placed a bounty on the scalps of Penobscot men, women, and children in Maine as a way to try to wipe out the tribe. There was also a massacre in the Skowhegan area of Wabanaki people.

As you might imagine, the words “Hunt the Indian” evoke painful historical trauma that is all too real to those of us whose ancestors were victims of this attempted genocide.

Next, some more recent events: In May of 2015, after being involved in a process with all the Indigenous Nations of Maine, the Skowhegan High School Board of MSAD54 voted to keep their “Indians” mascot.

A panel of 12 Wabanaki Indigenous tribal members had asked them respectfully to consider changing, and a public forum showed that the majority of residents of the district were in favor of the change, but they still decided to keep the mascot on an 11-9 vote. A group led by an elected school board member called “Skowhegan Indian Pride” asserted that the mascot is a way to honor the history of the town, which was influenced by Native Americans.

Their victory seems to have warped local ideas about what’s acceptable, bringing us to the current moment: Two weeks ago, the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce posted on their Facebook page a promotion for the upcoming holiday shopping season called “Hunt the Indian.” The idea is to take a figurine modeled on a large statue in town and hide it in a different local business each day. The customer who finds it gets a discount at the store.

As you might imagine, after word of the promotion got out they faced outrage from near and far. At first the Chamber attempted to defend their intentions, writing a post on Facebook likening the Indian to an “elf on the shelf” type game and saying it was not meant to be offensive.

After the phone calls and negative Facebook reviews began mounting, they eventually canceled the game entirely and issued an apology.

The actions of the Chamber are demeaning, dehumanizing and awful, but their crude game, which laid bare their even cruder understanding of their community and its history, has given us all a chance to make a positive change.

Because of their actions, more people are waking up to the inappropriateness of the high school mascot and the way the town has used it to demean, dehumanize, mock, and marginalize Indigenous people.

There is no more honor in their “scalp towels,” which they used to wave at games and still keep as memorabilia than there is in this idea of “hunting” Indians. No one can any longer claim to be naively unaware of the outdated stereotypes and disrespectful behaviors that promote violence and mistreatment, or the way actual indigenous people have been disparaged when we have asked them to stop using us as a mascot.

The time has come to make the change. Last year, a group that I am a part of, called Not Your Mascot Maine, collected almost 1,000 signatures on a petition which we delivered to the school board to replace the mascot. We also presented a report by the American Psychological Association, which found that Indian mascots are harmful to children, inhibit healthy relationships between races because of the stereotypes they promote and foster racist behavior and attitudes.

Now, A group of local residents are approaching the school board again about righting these embarrassing wrongs. Anyone who would like to help keep the momentum going can follow the Facebook page Notyourmascot Maine Chapter and should also considering sending a letter to the MSAD54 school board and its superintendent.

Maulian Dana is Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Indian Nation. The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance.


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