With the Major League Baseball team from Atlanta winning the World Series last week, the uncomfortable issue of cultural appropriation when it comes to Native American imagery re-entered the conversation. By which, of course, I mean a whole lot of hair-trigger defensive white fans loudly claiming the right to not only root for a team still called “the Braves,” but to don dime-store approximations of stereotypical Native garb and join in defiantly performing a hand gesture called the (deep sigh) “tomahawk chop.” 

To those offended by their persistent use of terms and tropes that are increasingly called out as offensive, some fans huffily respond that it’s all just tradition, that they’re actually honoring Native Americans, and that everybody’s just being too sensitive and “politically correct.” As mentioned, the resulting debate generally gets pretty ugly after that, since this is 2021 America. 

But what happens when a small town in Maine is confronted with the exact same issue of its high school’s sports mascot becoming the subject of national controversy? That’s the subject of “We Are The Warriors,” the upcoming documentary from Maine filmmakers David Camlin and Megan Grumbling (editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram’s Deep Water poetry column), examining how their hometown of Wells approached the issue once its own Native American mascot became the subject of heated debate. 

Wells High School is the alma mater of filmmakers David Camlin and Megan Grumbling.

“We were Wells Warriors,” says Camlin of his and Grumbling’s time as Wells High students in the mid-’90s. “We were both in the marching band and went to every football game and grew up under the mascot and the imagery.” As Camlin states, the Wells logo (a feathered Native American warrior) was simply something most people in Wells took for granted, even if concerns about racial insensitivity were raised (and dismissed) from time to time (including by retired longtime Wells football coach and Native American, Harry Tomah.) 

That all changed in 2017, as documented in “We Are The Warriors,” when a visiting parent of Native descent objected to her son playing in a game amid all the Native American imagery on the Wells side. The story became a flashpoint, with a Press Herald editorial by Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana about the incident making Wells the focal point for the national debate on Native team names. For Camlin and Grumbling, the close-to-home controversy crystalized their concerns about not only the lingering debate over cultural appropriation, but about how we as a nation have become increasingly unable to discuss such topics without entrenched and abusive rancor. 

“Seeing the trend we’ve been on, especially after the 2016 presidential election, of politicizing news, Megan and I saw the Wells story as an example that could, perhaps, counteract that momentum,” said Camlin. “In the way that Wells handled it, we saw this could be a story that would set an example – a willingness to pump the brakes, slow down, listen to other people, and not just appease others so they’ll leave you alone, but to really think about it, and have that factor into your decision-making.” 

“We Are The Warriors,” which is now in post-production with an eye toward a March 2022 public television release, does indeed show that things in Wells might have started out predictably, but also how one Maine town gradually – and, for some, painfully – found a more productive compromise. (Wells’ teams are still the Warriors, but stripped of any and all Native associations.) In Grumbling and Camlin’s admirably even-handed film, everybody is allowed to speak their piece, appropriately enough, with the town’s overwhelmingly white population (including Wells High School administrators, coaches and parents) initially expressing outrage that they were being singled out as racist for their town’s decades-long traditions. 

Watching the film, one might raise an eyebrow here. The spectacle of white Americans complaining that the media’s depiction of them as shallow and stripped of all context is pretty ironic, considering – a fact that Camlin hopes the film will bring home. “Watching the people in Wells say, ‘This isn’t really us, this isn’t fair,’ is to see them get right up to the line, but not take that final step into self-awareness,” said Camlin. “With a little more reflection, they might make that connection to the mascot, and to what Native people are saying about it.”

Still, “We Are The Warriors” shows how the (again, entirely white) committee formed to address the issue made the grudging but laudable steps to actually get the whole picture. The parent who made the complaint spoke to the group, alongside a panel of Native Americans advocating for the mascot’s removal. Said Wells native Camlin of the committee’s efforts, “It’s hard for people to get over the idea that the Indians were here, and now they’re just gone. But it becomes really difficult to keep talking about Native people in the past tense when they’re sitting in front of you.” 

A still from “We are the Warriors,” which is in post-production.

There are dissenters, with attendees of a public forum on the mascot issue complaining, essentially, that outside troublemakers are the real problem, and holding up the supposed acquiescence of the town’s own Native citizens as proof. One of the film’s most potent scenes involves the daughter of a well-known local Native business owner debunking the widely held idea that her late father supported the Warriors mascot, citing fears for his economic well-being should he speak his mind. As Camlin notes, such uncomfortable truths have always been the rallying cry for white America to lash out. 

“It’s not just Native mascots. Half the country, let’s say, are people who are really concerned with holding onto what they feel they have left. They have the sense that they’ve been giving up on ideals and ways of thinking about themselves, and to be challenged that way hits a lot of pressure points at once.” Indeed, one administrator near the end of the film claims she only voted for the eventual changes in half-hearted deference to shifting public sentiment, ominously warning the people of Skowhegan (one of the only other Maine towns with a Native mascot at the time), “They’re coming for you next.” (Skowhegan did change its mascot from “Indians” to “River Hawks” in 2020, and Maine’s Gov. Janet Mills has signed a ban on Native mascots statewide.) 

For filmmakers Camlin and Grumbling, coming home meant confronting their own past, as well as their town’s. “We sort of leveraged out alumni status,” explained Camlin. “The people we went to high school with are now administrators and teachers and parents, and while a lot of people were initially gun-shy about talking to a film crew after the press had – as they saw it – descended on them, we had a personal head start in gaining their trust.”

“We Are The Warriors” is currently in the all-important post-production phase, but viewers can catch a sneak preview of the work-in-progress on the film’s website Nov. 19-20 and Nov. 26-27. While Grumbling and Camlin have been paying for their production out of pocket (and with some support from the organization Documentary Educational Resources), Camlin’s hoping that Mainers will help raise the final costs for, among other things, a truly impressive score. “We could just use stock documentary music, but we’ve hired Mali Obomsawin of the band Lula Wiles, who’s putting together an ensemble of Wabanaki musicians to record an original soundtrack.”

I urge readers to check out “We Are The Warriors” (and to help crowdfund its completion). As Camlin puts it regarding his hometown’s approach to a thorny issue, “When people are at least willing to come to the table, it’s not too far of a walk to see things through somebody else’s perspective.”

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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