We see and hear a lot of absurdity in the news these days. But none more so than the chant that erupted Thursday evening among those die-hards in Skowhegan who can’t fathom why they should no longer call their local school teams the “Indians.”

“We are the Indians, the mighty, mighty Indians!” they bellowed over and over before the School Administrative District 54 board of directors. “We are the Indians! The mighty, mighty Indians!”

People, it pains the rest of us to break this to you: You are not, never have been and never will be Indians.

What you are is clueless.

“I think we just have too much time on our hands, that people are obsessed with holding onto these racial tropes,” John Grenier said in an interview Friday.

Grenier, a military historian who lives in Colorado Springs, is the author of “The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814.”


The award-winning book examines more than two centuries of hostilities between British colonialists and Native Americans – including the infamous Battle of Norridgewock on Aug. 23, 1724.

Tensions and hostilities had been rising for years between the indigenous Abenakis and the British settlers who kept pushing northward into what is now Maine. The flash point finally came when a force of more than 200 Massachusetts “rangers” – militiamen motivated primarily by bounties of 50 to 100 pounds sterling offered by the British Crown for Native American scalps – attacked Norridgewock, then a large Abenaki village alongside the Kennebec River, a few miles upstream from what today is downtown Skowhegan.

Led by Captains Johnson Harmon and Jeremiah Moulton, the rangers’ goal was twofold: Destroy the village and, in the process, assassinate Father Sébastien Râle, a French Jesuit missionary who for more than 30 years had lived among the Abenakis and built a church in the center of the village. The British reviled Râle as an agent for the French in Quebec; the Abenakis revered him.

It was a battle in name only.

“The raid on Norridgewock was well conceived and executed,” Grenier writes. “The rangers managed to approach it undetected. Once near the mission, Moulton’s company infiltrated the village while the others swept the surrounding fields.”

They shot Father Râle dead as he stepped out of his cabin. As word of his death spread quickly, the Abenakis fled en masse to the nearby river.


“Moulton’s company pursued the fleeing Indians and drove many into fusillades of fire from other companies,” Grenier writes. “Those Abenakis who reached the river had to run a gauntlet as rangers poured musket fire into crowded canoes of Indian men, women and children. Harmon later lamented that the river’s swift current washed over 50 Indian bodies downstream before the rangers could retrieve them for scalping.”

A more intimate account of the raid comes from Louise Ketchum Hunt, a member of the Penobscot Nation who last year published “In the Shadow of the Steel Cross: The Massacre of Father Sébastien Râle, S.J. and the Indian Chiefs.”

In her book, which is based on oral histories passed down over generations of Penobscot women, Ketchum Hunt writes of the horror of that day from the Abenakis’ perspective:

“Torches hit the wooden cabins and they went up in flames. Soon the stockade and the enclosure was one huge fire. Screams and crying of children were heard as they tried to escape from the flames. Later the survivors would count 120 escaping to safety across the river. When the attack started, fifty warriors were in the village. Many of them were among the eighty men, women, and children who lost their lives along with Père Râle and the seven chiefs who defended their priest on that infamous day of August 23, 1724.”

The rangers returned to Boston, where they were feted as conquering heroes. Some of the Abenaki survivors fled northwest to Odanak, Quebec, while others headed east to the Penobscot settlement on Indian Island. Apart from a few hangers-on and a monument to Râle erected in 1833, the Norridgewock village ceased to exist.

Now, almost 300 years later, we have scores of grown adults and young children, most if not all of them white, chanting that they are the “mighty, mighty Indians” and waving signs like “Skowhegan Indians Our Heritage.” All because the SAD 54 school board, after years of debate, finally did the right thing on March 7 and voted 14-9 to discontinue the nickname.


The decision makes Maine the first state in the nation to eradicate all of these chest-thumping assaults on Native American heritage. On Monday, the Legislature will hold a hearing on a bill that would impose a statewide ban on the use of Native American names, images or symbols as team nicknames or mascots.

Yet, the battle rages on in Skowhegan, where “Indians” fans now want a districtwide referendum on whether to retain the nickname.

“This is our Indian,” Kenny Steward of Skowhegan told Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow at a signature-gathering rally two weeks ago. “We’re not doing it to be racist; we’re not doing it to be disrespectful. We’re doing it to honor the people that lived here before.”

Seriously? What about the people who died there before?

To those who would say that’s all ancient history, water over the proverbial dam, it’s worth noting that the steel cross mentioned in Louise Ketchum Hunt’s book title refers to the cross that once towered over the Norridgewock mission. After the raid, it was transported by an Abenaki named Half Arm Nicola, who lost part of his arm in battle, to the Penobscot village on Indian Island, where it remains in the Penobscot Nation Museum to this day.

Perhaps the next time the “Indians” crowd gathers, might someone show them that cross and tell them how it ended up 70 miles away on Indian Island?


Or tell them about Captains Harmon and Moulton and what they and their rangers did not to preserve Abenaki heritage, but to erase it from the face of the earth?

Or maybe ask them how they might feel about removing the top of a Native American’s head and selling it to the government for what, at the time, equaled a full year’s pay?

“You think that would make a difference?” asked James Eric Francis Sr. in an interview Friday.

Francis is the Penobscot Nation’s director of cultural and historic preservation. In addition to the iconic cross, he said, the heritage of the Norridgewock village lives on in the blood of many modern-day Penobscots who trace their lineage directly to survivors of the Norridgewock raid. Many return each year to the site of Râle’s monument to pray and pay homage to their ancestors.

The truth is the people now clamoring for a referendum to save the “Skowhegan Indian” are not unaware of what happened at Norridgewock. More than once, Francis said, the story has been told at school board meetings over the years – and more than once, the rhetorical battle has raged on unabated.

Powerful stuff, that willful ignorance.

“They know about the battle. They know about the history. They have heard it,” Francis said. “They just choose not to listen.”


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