SKOWHEGAN — Close to 200 people attended a public forum Tuesday on continued use of the Skowhegan “Indians” nickname for high school sports teams, but judging by the sign-up sheet to speak, the crowd was largely in favor of changing the name.

At the 6 p.m. close of the required sign-up period in the middle school cafeteria, 64 people signed the list of wanting to change the name, while 11 signed up to speak in favor of keeping it.

Many more people filled the gymnasium for the forum, some carrying placards that have been seen for the past three years of discussion. There also were five police officers on duty, including the chief and the deputy chief.

First to speak was Judi York, a vocal supporter of all things “Indians” in Skowhegan. She said her ancestry is French and Viking and takes no offense at French names for towns or Viking images.

“Skowhegan and Norridgewock are both Indian names — I’m proud to be from this town,” York said. “I’m tired of people from other towns, states or countries telling me what words I can use. It’s a word, not a mascot — it’s used in pride, not as a put down.”

York said she and others want to keep alive the original people of the area and that dropping the name would lead to them being forgotten and ignored.

The second person to speak was Adelle Belanger, a Skowhegan high school senior from Cornville, who said she has been embarrassed being from the school district that still uses Native American images and nicknames when she travels in Maine.

“We all want to be proud of our town,” she said. “We all want to look our best for the rest of the state and the country and we simply have different ideas of what this looks like. I am not an Indian. If we truly want to honor Native Americans, we will retire the mascot.”

And so it went Tuesday night, moderated by Michael Boucher, the district legal counsel. Each speaker was given two minutes to speak.

One by one, back and forth, the speakers said why they wanted to keep the nickname and why they wanted it retired.

Leading up to the forum, one group, calling itself Skowhegan Indian Pride in a closed Facebook group, led by school board member Jennifer Poirier, insists that using the name “Indians” is done with respect, honoring the people who lived for generations along the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. It is not mocking or disrespectful, they say.

Another group called Not Your Mascot, Maine Chapter, lead by Penobscot Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana of Indian Island, disagrees.

“We don’t want special rights. We want equal rights,” Dana has said. “If any other race was degraded in this way, it would not be tolerated. Racism is an illness and mascots are a symptom, but when the racism is not validated by an institution, it carries far less impact and consequences.”

Dana, the daughter of onetime Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, of Solon, criticized the school board for not postponing the forum Tuesday night because of bad weather.

“I think that holding it today when the weather is bad is an intentional attempt to silence outside voices who have to travel and make it easier for local people to talk,” she said prior to the meeting.

EFFORTS FOR, AGAINST

Outside groups have weighed in on the debate over the past three years of heated debate.

The staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sent a letter in December to the school board chairwoman and the superintendent of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 urging them to “do the right thing” and drop the “Indians” nickname.

In the letter to board Chairwoman Dixie Ring, of Canaan, and SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry, attorney Emma Bond urges the district to “listen to Maine’s tribal leaders and retire the Skowhegan Area High School mascot.”

“Every single school district in Maine has said they no longer want to perpetuate this harm, except Skowhegan,” said Bond. “Now Skowhegan has another opportunity to do the right thing.”

Supporters of Skowhegan Indian Pride insist that they can “celebrate what our Skowhegan Indian name stands for. Honor, courage, integrity, bravery and nothing but good intentions.”

They say all the early “Indian” mascot imagery and whooping caricatures were dropped in 1990, leaving only the name.

The school board voted 11-9 in May 2015 to keep the nickname “Indians.”

In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association publicly called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots” because they teach “misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians.”

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, recently wrote a letter to Colbry, Ring and the SAD 54 board of directors, asking the district to discontinue the use of Indians as the Skowhegan Area High School mascot.

The church was echoing the Bangor chapter of the NAACP, which in 2015 asked the district to drop the nickname.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills also has weighed in, encouraging the SAD 54 board to discontinue use of the nickname.

In her campaign platform, Mills said she will work with Maine’s Native American tribes to create jobs, bring broadband to the reservations, and work on expanding ecotourism and new industries.

“I will work to remove once and for all, offensive names for teams, schools and mascots that have no place in our modern-day society,” Mills wrote.

At Mills’ inauguration last week, Dana thanked the governor for her support in efforts to remove the “Indians” nickname from Skowhegan Area High School sports teams.

“I have great hope for our continued efforts to reach common ground and mend the bonds between the indigenous people of the state and the governing bodies,” Dana said.

A governor’s spokesman said there would not be anyone from Mills’ office at Tuesday night’s forum.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 called for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-native schools, saying that “references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow


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