SKOWHEGAN — The School Administrative District 54 board of directors voted 14-9 Thursday night to “respectfully retire” the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the Skowhegan district, making it the last in Maine to end the use of Native American nicknames and imagery for its sports teams.

Supporters of the Indians nickname say the vote hasn’t settled the question. “I don’t think it’s over,” said board member Jennifer Poirier. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

Debate over the nickname has raged since 2015, when the board voted 11-9 to keep it, saying that it was incorrect to call it a mascot because the district had dropped the logo picturing a Native American years before. But critics disagreed.

“I say that calling yourselves Indians means you have a mascot,” Maulian Dana of the Penobscot Nation said at the meeting. The tribe has spearheaded efforts to get SAD 54 to drop the name, calling it racist and demeaning to real Native Americans.

“The vote went as it should,” board member Derek Ellis of Skowhegan said. “We can’t rewrite history, but we can make it.”

Supporters of the Indians nickname said the vote doesn’t mean the question has been settled, however.

Board member Jennifer Poirier – a driving force behind the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook group, which has advocated keeping the Indians nickname – said she knew the board was split on the issue.

“I don’t think it’s over,” she said. “I think the community’s going to be coming back because it’s not the will of the majority of the community. There’s been talk if the budget’s going to pass. We’ll see.”

Poirier said the school board appeared to have been representing people from “outside of the community.”

Dana, ambassador to the Penobscot Nation, and her father, Barry Dana of Solon, a past chief of the tribe, along with others, have called for the removal of the mascot for years.

Barry Dana said Thursday night that the past four years have been difficult.

“It was a real tough thing to sit through, yet a real interesting thing,” he said after the vote. He said “my gut” was “balling up inside me, but I also had my spirit soaring with some of the testimony that some of the people on the board gave. I don’t begrudge anyone else for maintaining their position. But I think they made the right move.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also applauded the board’s decision.

“This is an historic moment for Skowhegan and our state,” it said in an emailed statement. “We are thrilled that a majority of Skowhegan’s school board members listened to the people who were being hurt and did the right thing. By retiring the harmful mascot, the town of Skowhegan is forging a bold new legacy of leadership.”

The vote came after the board first met to consult with its attorney in an executive session.

Skowhegan Indian Pride members have said that using the name shows respect for the people who lived for generations along the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. They say they “celebrate what our Skowhegan Indian name stands for. Honor, courage, integrity, bravery and nothing but good intentions.”

Kathy LeBrun, a resident who said her mother is full-blooded Passamaquoddy, said at a recent meeting that she and her family are not offended by use of the word “Indians.”

“The Penobscot ambassador does not speak for us,” she said, referring to Maulian Dana. “Remember my ancestors. Don’t wipe them out again.”

But critics of the nickname say it is offensive.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations, recently wrote a letter to the SAD 54 board of directors urging it to drop the name..

And Maine Gov. Janet Mills also has urged the board to discontinue use of the nickname. During the governor’s race, Mills said she will work with Maine’s tribes to create jobs, increase broadband access on the reservations, and expand 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.

On March 1, the Maine Department of Education urged schools “to refrain from using mascots and logos that depict Native American tribes, individuals, customs, or traditions.”

Rep. Benjamin T. Collings, D-Portland, has sponsored a bill that would ban use of such nicknames or mascots in Maine. L.D. 944, has been referred to the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

The bill would prohibit a public school in Maine from having or adopting a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school.

 

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