SKOWHEGAN — Gov.-elect Janet Mills was among those who weighed in Thursday in the debate over the nickname used by Skowhegan’s schools, urging board members to carefully consider Native Americans’ feelings as the community again grapples with whether to retire its Indians nickname.

Mills sent a letter to the SAD 54 board before its regular meeting Thursday night. In it, she acknowledged that decisions like a proposed name change can be “difficult and emotional,” but said the Indians name has become “a source of pain and anguish” for Native Americans.

“I hope that that perspective is given weight in your deliberations this evening,” she wrote. “Changing your mascot does not change you as a people.”

Over 100 people attended the meeting in the middle school cafeteria, some holding signs saying “Restore respect” and “Retire the mascot.” Others sat wearing black-and-orange “Skowhegan Pride” T-shirts and sweatshirts.

On one side are those who believe it should be up to the people being portrayed by nicknames, images and sports mascots to decide what’s offensive and what’s not. On the other is the 1,600-member Skowhegan Indian Pride group, which is proud of the Indians name and doesn’t see it as racist or offensive.

Before the meeting, Penobscot National Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana called Skowhegan’s mascot “harmful to the children in the school and indigenous children all over the state” and brought members of the Penobscot Nation Youth Council with her to illustrate her point.

“Your guys are only Indians for four years. We’re Indians for life,” said Skyler Lewey, 15, a student at Old Town High School and a member of the Youth Council. “We all grew up on the reservation, on Indian Island. We all know what racism is like. You say you celebrate the heritage and the culture, but you don’t. You don’t have socials, you don’t have ceremonies.”

The other group, calling itself Skowhegan Indian Pride in a closed Facebook group, is led by school board member Jennifer Poirier, who says that using the name “Indians” is done with respect, honoring the people who lived and fished along the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan.

It is not mocking or disrespectful, they say. They say the nickname is their tradition, their identity and their way of respecting Native Americans by channeling their strength and bravery in sports competition.

“In 2015, after a lengthy process of research, forums and discussion, a vote was taken to remain the Skowhegan Indians,” Poirier said before the meeting Thursday. “Unfortunately, neither the process nor the vote has been respected by those pushing for a change.”

Poirier said the current debate has been anything but civil. A police officer was stationed at the last board meeting because someone pressing to change the name posted an online threat to bring a hatchet to the meeting, she said.

Maulian Dana said, she, too, has been threatened and demeaned on the “Pride” Facebook page.

Both women said that objectionable posts on either of their Facebook pages were taken down as soon as they were discovered.

“The school board has much work to conduct during its meetings,” Poirier said. “It is not a public forum or a platform for public debate. I encourage people to be respectful of the school board and each other.”

Some members of the school board continue to say that the school dropped the mascot “running Indian” caricature and other images in 1990 after being asked to do so, but continues to use the name “Indians” because that’s who they are. They say the school board voted 11-9 to keep the name and that the case should be closed.

Representatives of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes – all members of the umbrella Wabanaki federation in Maine – told a school board subcommittee in 2013 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.

Since that time, the Bangor office of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, with a church in Skowhegan, all have urged the school board to drop the name.

Board Chairwoman Dixie Ring of Canaan said the district would hold an open panel forum on Jan. 8 or 9 to discuss the issue. In a show of hands vote by board members, even that question produced a divided vote, 12-7, in favor of the forum.

Doug Harlow can be reached at 612-2367 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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