SKOWHEGAN  — The School Administrative District 54 board of directors voted Thursday night to reject placing a nonbinding advisory or survey on the June referendum ballot on use of the “Indians” nickname, school imagery and mascot.

The vote was 14-6. It came quickly on the heels of a 14-9 board vote to “respectfully retire” the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the district.

With weighted votes from each of the six SAD 54 towns, that vote was 558 favoring change and 441 against it. SAD 54 is made up of the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

Supporters of keeping the “Indians” nickname say their voices have not been heard and they want a referendum.

The question also follows a vote Tuesday on a bill in the Maine House of Representatives banning Native American mascots.

The bill, L.D. 944, “An Act to Ban Native American Mascots in All Public Schools,” passed in the Maine House, 88-45, and came one step closer to becoming state law.

The bill now goes to the Maine Senate on Tuesday. From there, if it is passes, it goes to the governor’s desk for her signature.

A supporter of keeping the Skowhegan Indian nickname yells at the school board at Skowhegan Middle School after a vote on a non-binding referendum in removing the nickname from the school on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Some members of the House argued that the bill was a violation of freedom of speech, was too expansive and took control away from local school districts, NewCenterMaine reported this week. Members who supported the bill said using Native American imagery as a mascot was a civil rights issue and the state needed to set a precedent.

Rep. Betty Austin, D-Skowhegan, and a member of the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen, argued that local school districts should be able to decide whether they would allow Native American mascots, the TV station reported.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, called the bill “dangerous” and a breach of freedom of expression and finally said asked what the point of the laaw would be, given that there would be no penalty for schools that did not comply.

Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday that he will check with state Department of Education on the regulation issue and how or whether it can be enforced and by whom.

Others this week said the local school district already decided to drop the Native American nickname and corresponding imagery with its vote on March 7. The school board is the governing body of the local school district, so local control is alive and well and a referendum is not necessary, they said.

After the vote in March, there were vows that the fight was not over and charges that the board vote to keep the mascot in 2015 was not honored. There were complaints that “outsiders” had the final word on what is a decidedly a local issue.

Five police officers were assigned to the meeting, including the police chief.

Mariah Stewart, left, walks past opponents of keeping the Skowhegan “Indians” nickname filing out of a school board meeting Thursday at Skowhegan Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry has said there hasn’t been any formal discussion on what a new mascot might look like or be called. He has said the biggest issue facing the board and the district is hammering out a final budget for the upcoming year.

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

Supporters in a closed Facebook group called 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 was dropped in 1990, leaving only the name.

Debate has raged 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.

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

The chairman of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations since has written a letter 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. The state Department of Education also has urged the district to drop the “Indians” nickname.

Skowhegan Area High School is the last high school in Maine to use an indigenous nickname for its sports teams.

Supporters of maintaining the “Indians” nickname say that they are preserving the powerful history of the first people to settle along the banks of the Kennebec River. Their opponents call them “pretendians” and note that Native people in Maine are still here and still practicing their tribal customs.

Dana said the issue of the mascot is just the name and the image of the sports teams, not all of the other local names and art depicting Native American.

“The act is to ban Indian mascots and schools using imagery in association with those mascots,” she said Thursday before the meeting. “Other items will not be affected.”

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