The 30-foot-tall Indian statue looms over Route 1 in Freeport. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

The owners of a home renovation business that opened in Freeport late last month say they don’t plan to remove the 30-foot-tall statue depicting an American Indian on their property.

Known locally as the “Big Indian,” the statue was commissioned by Julian Leslie, owner of Casco Bay Trading Post on Route 1 in South Freeport, and erected in 1969. Leslie had the statue made to entice people to stop in his store, which sold moccasins.

John Bear Mitchell, a native educator, storyteller and citizen of the Penobscot Tribe and University of Maine lecturer of Wabanaki Studies, argues the statue is both disrespectful and historically inaccurate.

Leslie’s store closed in 1989, but the statue remained, regardless of what businesses took over the location. In April, home renovation company Design Concepts bought the property, and with it, the statue.

Design Concepts opened its location on 125 Route 1 Freeport on Sept. 20, after a fire destroyed its Portland location in June. It’s sharing a building there with Great Stuff! Consignments and Pillars, an antique shop.

The statue appears in a photo on Design Concepts’ Facebook page announcing its opening in Freeport: “We are on Route 1, look for the Big Indian and you have found us!”

Design Concepts co-owner Eric Dube said the owners plan to keep the statue for the time being.

“It has been there historically,” Dube said, but added that he doesn’t know what the long-term plan for the structure is because “it’s last on our priority list aside from making sure it’s stable and won’t fall on anyone.”

However, Mitchell argued the statue should come down, regardless of the history or sentimentality locals hold for the landmark.

“It’s odd to see these types of landmarks that get so embedded in communities that become a tradition for places, but it’s disrespectful to us,” said Mitchell. “We don’t commemorate any other ethnicities in this way. It also gives the impression that we’re only a people of the past. It diminishes our identities in many ways, and it’s historically inaccurate.”

Dube said he hasn’t heard any pushback from the community on the statue and hasn’t considered whether anyone finds it disrespectful.

“I grew up north of Freeport so we used to ride by it all the time and it has been there for as long as I can remember,” said Dube. “I haven’t put that much thought into that. I don’t look at things that way in general, but that’s only me. I’m one of three partners and I don’t speak for the entire group.”

Mitchell said the figure doesn’t resemble any member of a Maine tribe.

The style of the statue’s headdress and spear resembles a member of the Lakota tribe of the Midwest, but the thunderbird design on the statue’s shield is native to Southwestern tribes, he said. For that reason, among others, Mitchell said the statue doesn’t honor or any tribes in Maine.

While the statue is upsetting, Mitchell said he and other members of Maine’s tribes understand the statue likely wouldn’t be removed if they “make a stink and bring attention to it” because “we don’t get asked and we don’t get a voice.”

“It would be nice to see it go, but we know it’s not going to go,” said Mitchell. “If that’s how we’re remembered through mascots and statues, then we’re fine with that, but it perpetuates stereotypes in a way that’s detrimental to our children. The folks who care about the statue, it’s for them. It’s not for us.”

If someone came forward to ask for the removal of the statue, Dube said he would make that decision with his co-owners.

Though the statue is remaining in place for now, Maine is moving away from using Native American imagery for mascots and marketing tactics.

In 2018, the York County town of Wells removed the likeness of an American Indian as part of its team logo, but kept the name “Warriors.” The change came after a Micmac mother, whose son played football for Lisbon High School, sent a letter to the school’s district superintendent accusing fans and players of mocking Native Americans with offensive stereotypes during a 2017 football game.

In 2012, Sanford High School replaced its “Redskins” mascot with “Spartans.”

In March 2020, School Administrative District 54 voted to “retire” the nickname “Indians” for the Skowhegan schools, ending a contentious debate that had raged for more than four years. Those in favor of keeping the name insisted it showed respect to the state’s native tribes, but critics said the name was offensive.

Skowhegan was the last public school district in Maine still using American Indian imagery or nicknames. The schools later picked the “River Hawks” as the new mascot.

In 2019, Maine passed a law that banned public schools and colleges from using depictions of Native Americans in mascots, logos or nicknames, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Michell said it’s not unexpected that a community might resist eliminating imagery of American Indians, even if it is racist, stereotypical or inaccurate, because of tradition. However, Mitchell said those against removing native imagery as mascots should consider how that imagery impacts children of Maine’s four federally recognized American Indian tribes.

“Generally speaking, they become embarrassed by how they’re portrayed,” he said, noting the spear which the statue is holding. “It’s expressing violence. That spear is a war spear. It doesn’t have a peaceful message.”


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