SKOWHEGAN — The School Administrative District 54 board Thursday night agreed to take a non-binding vote at their next meeting April 25 — after school vacation — on whether to put a question out to referendum on saving the Skowhegan “Indians” nickname for sports teams.

Directors agreed that the language of the referendum question would be reviewed by the full board before the vote is taken and stressed that the referendum would be on paper ballots in all six district towns.

Michelle Lewis, cheers for a young middle school student who spoke in favor of keeping the Skowhegan Area High School name during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

They also stressed that it would be non-binding vote, meaning that any outcome would not overule the board vote in March to “respectfully retire” the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the district.

The consensus came after several members of the public were allowed to speak in favor of keeping the “Indians” nickname, saying it has nothing to do with race and that supporters of keeping the name are not racist. None stood to speak in favor of dropping the name.

“We have never disrespected the Indian name,” supporter Michelle Lewis told the board. “We deserve to have the final say.”

School board memebrs then debated among themselves about the value of a non-binding vote, but Director Harold Bigelow said he wanted to make sure that the taxpayers and residents had a voice in the process. Bigelow, like Lewis, said they resented the fact that “outsiders” had forced the final vote to drop the name.

Directors also acknowledged that the referendum question would be moot if a state law is passed to ban all Native American imagery for school sports teams in Maine.

Debate over use of Native American imagery as school sports team mascots has raged for four years in SAD 54 and continued Thursday night, when both sides of the controversial issue once again packed the house at a school board meeting.

There were the orange and black “Indian Pride” shirts and signs, mixed in with people hoping to end the the practice of using Native American nicknames and imagery that some say is a tribute to Native Americans who lived in the area for centuries and is a cherished local tradition, and others who say the traditon is a racist and destructive insult to living, breating Native Americans in Maine.

The school board voted 14-9 March 7 to end the practice, but “Indian Pride” supporters say it should be up to the people to vote in a referendum. The Somerset County school district is the only one left in the state that uses Native American iconography for its athletic teams.

Thursday night’s meeting began with a closed session of school board members, Brent Colbry, the school superintendent, and the district’s lawyer to discuss the possibility of bringing the question of continued use of “Indians” to a popular vote.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, who stood last month to tell the school board that he had petitions signed by 4,000 people “to maintain the Skowhegan Indians name.”

Stetkis said the board vote, possibly meant to finally quell discussion on the controversial subject, had “quite the opposite effect.”

At a wild meeting of the board March 22, Stetkis asked that a moratorium be imposed on action on the March 7 vote until the public is able to vote in “a free and fair” referendum on the issue.

Bruce Smith, attorney for the Skowhegan school district talks about the laws surrounding a the school board’s authority in cases of changing the mascot of a school during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Since the debate first raised in 2015 when on April 13 of that year during a joint meeting of a school board subcommittee and 10 members of the Wabanaki Indian federation, tribal leaders told school board directors they wanted the mascot dropped for the sake of all children attending Maine schools.

Roger Paul, a Passamaquoddy Indian language teacher told the board sub-committee that: “My job is to teach that we’re not gone. We’re still here, we still speak our language, we still follow our traditions.”

Debate has fueled emotions in and out of school board meetings since 2015, when the board voted 11-9 to keep the name, saying that the word mascot was a misnomer, as the district had dropped all the feathers, warpaint and characters years before.

They thought it was settled, but it wasn’t.

“I say that calling yourselves Indians means you have a mascot,” Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador, has said. Dana, with a nod as spokeswoman for the tribe from Chief Kirk Francis, has said the use of the “Indians” mascot is racist and demeaning to real Native Americans.

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

The chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations also wrote a letter to 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 mirroring what the Bangor chapter of the NAACP has said in 2015 when it 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.

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

The department noted that it does not have jurisdiction over such local decisions, but it is encouraging schools and communities “to consider the impact of promoting symbols and stereotypes that marginalize individuals or groups of people.”

Judi Clark listens during a discussion to vote on a referendum to bring the Indian name back to the table during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The department stopped short of supporting a bill that would ban the use of Native American mascots in Maine’s public schools, saying the local school board already had voted to drop the nicknames. Members of the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs voted 7-5 to recommend the full Legislature support the proposed legislation. An amendment to include post-secondary institutions that receive state funding in the ban, rather than just public K-12 institutions, was added.

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, a co-chair of the committee, said that she views the bill as “a civil rights issue rather than local control.” Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, agreed.

“I do see this as a civil rights issue,” he said. “It is important that we honor and respect our differences … and not create negative stereotypes or stigma or the risk that some who are different, some who are minorities, may be harmed by the mascots that we have. I think that risk is very real here. I think we heard from people who had experienced it personally.”

Also in March, a proposal to change the Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous People’s Day as a tribute to Native Americans received initial approval in the Maine Legislature.

The House voted 88-51 in support of the bill. The measure faces further votes in both the house and Senate.

Democratic Rep. Benjamin Collings of Portland sponsored the bill. He also is the sponsor of the bill to ban Native American mascots in Maine public schools.

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
[email protected]
Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

 

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