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'Beat Your War Drum Somewhere Else!': The Ugly War Over a Racist Mascot

I am writing to you as a concerned citizen of the state of Maine. As you may be aware there has been an ongoing discussion and series of events regarding the Skowhegan High School’s use of the mascot “Indians” for their sports teams. I offer some background on this issue as it presents itself here.

Why Are Indian Mascots Harmful?
*When Native Americans are portrayed as mascots we are brought down to a level of being an object or a token, not a race of actual people with a rich heritage and modern day life.

*The images are stereotypical and keep us in a one size fits all box of what we are supposed to look and act like. This is harmful to our people because it shapes how we are treated by dominant society. We are degraded and disrespected because to them all we are is a people in the past and we are silly pictures with big noses and red skin.

*Even if the images are nice to look at it still is taking a race of people and objectifying us.

*The symbols: feathers, war paint, peace pipe, tomahawk, clothes, etc are all sacred to our culture and are to be used in the proper way by our people. When they are paraded around and misrepresented by these teams it is mocking our religion and undermining our core values.

*Our children grow up in a time that identity is crucial. They need to know who they are so that they are prepared for the challenges of life. If they see this identity stolen, ridiculed, mocked, misused, laughed at, lied about, etc then it hurts them and makes our nations weaker.

*This weakening of our sense of identity is a contributor to our high rates of: alcoholism, suicide, crime, cultural loss, domestic violence, and obesity. Words matter.

*No other group is treated this way. There would never a team with stereotypical and/or derogatory depictions of African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Hispanic, or Caucasians.

*Our ancestors underwent an attempted genocide right here in our homeland. It is not an honor to have the culture that they worked so hard to protect stolen and made into a cheap and meaningless version by people with no respect for the names or customs.

*By using inaccurate and "historic" images of Native peoples, the idea of the "vanishing Indian" is perpetuated. By attempting to represent our past, we are kept in the past, and further denied our right to be represented as a contemporary, living people.

*When attempting to honor another culture, it is important to consider what that culture considers to be an honor, and what causes offense.

*While some pretend to be "Indians" we live with the reality every day. The oppression, discrimination, historical trauma, increased risk factors for early death through disease and higher crime rates, and pain from having our culture appropriated and marginalized are all sides of being Indian that are not romanticized yet we are forced to live with. Indian is not a costume or a cute nickname that we can take on or off as it suits us. We can't only celebrate the good parts we also live with the whole reality. It is disrespectful of them to call yourselves Indian when you truly do not know what it means.

Before 2001 Skowhegan high school engaged in practices in their games that included: cheerleaders and members of the band wearing fake “Indian” headdresses and attire (that more closely resembled plains tribal garb and not the tribes of the area of Skowhegan), they cheered with “war whoops”, painted their faces with fake “war paint”, and other things along these lines. In 2001 it was brought to the district’s attention that there may a problem with their Indian mascot. They conducted a survey to assess the opinions of the people in the district on the subject. The survey has some who are in favor of changing the name, citing respect to the wishes of the tribes. There are some who are noncommittal in either direction and apathetic to the issue. There are many who were quite vocal about wanting to keep the name and make their stance known in very colorful and at times racist and hateful comments. After the survey and deliberation they decided to end the outwardly offensive practices and imagery and keep it to the name only as their mascot. Around this time they also decided to try to incorporate more education about Native Americans into their school curriculums. These actions are wonderful but they show that they are aware that there are problems with having an Indian mascot.

Over the past few years since those changes the issue has not gone away. Every other school in the state that has an “Indian” mascot has changed the whole mascot (In the case of Sanford, Wiscasset, Old Town, Scarborough who have all done away with “Indians” or “Redskins”) or they have taken on a generic term “Warriors” with no imagery tying it to Native Americans (such as Nokomis and Wells).

Skowhegan stands alone with “Indian” as their school mascot.

More recently, conversations have started again in the district earlier this year. Barry Dana, former Chief of the Penobscot Nation, after meeting with the district Superintendent Brent Colby; organized a delegation of tribal representatives from all of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Micmac). The delegation of a dozen people presented our views to a subcommittee of the MSAD 54 school board and exchanged some dialogue and questions with them in a two hour meeting. The people of the town who want to keep the Indian name organized a small silent protest outside the meeting and sat silently during the meeting holding signs and wearing t-shirts supporting the name.

During this meeting I mentioned that I respect that the community has so much pride in the history of the town and a public forum to exchange ideas and educate each other on the tribes from the area and how they could respectfully pay homage to that without using the race as a mascot would be a very good thing. We ended the meeting on good terms. A school board member approached me after to say that she thought the public forum would be a great idea and that we should come back to Skowhegan and be a part of it. I left that meeting, as we all did, feeling optimistic and encouraged by the healthy exchange of dialogue and plans to continue the road of education and communication.

The same school board member that approached me after the meeting also messaged me privately asked for resources about the issue to help her understand and I happily obliged. We had very polite exchanges. Unbeknownst to me, at their next school board meeting this same member made a motion to have a public forum with stipulations that only residents of the district can speak and that they all vote on a referendum question in favor of keeping the name. They did pass her motion but with exceptions that the forum would be open to residents of the district and Maine State Representatives and that there would be no referendum question.

The day after this board meeting I found out about the rules for the public forum and was greatly disappointed. It was a setback to say the least. That weekend at our annual tribal general meeting I was given authorization to stand in for our representative, since we had voted to pull our representative from the legislature (another story that has gotten a lot of attention recently). So without a representative I was appointed for that day. The Chief of the tribe, Kirk Francis, personally wrote a letter asking the board to let me speak on the tribe’s behalf. I came to the public forum and signed up on the speakers list. When my name was called I approached the microphone with my letter from the Chief and the school board motioned for a police officer to escort me away with people from the town yelling things in my face and booing me.

As disheartening as that was I was amazed by the people from the district that spoke out passionately and eloquently for changing the name. I would wager that if they did in fact hold the referendum that night they may have voted to change the name. One man wore a kilt to the microphone and talked about stereotypes. Another woman made a very effective analogy about veterans, saying that although many of us feel connected to veterans we cannot speak as if we are one of them if we are not because we do not know their experience in the world and history. There were some that simply conveyed the message that if Native Americans are not honored by mascots and are actually hurt and offended by them, then their likeness and name should not be used. There were those that spoke in favor of keeping the name but they were fairly quick and to the point, saying that they are Skowhegan Indians and no one will change that.

Had the school board allowed me to speak here they would have had a view that they desperately needed going into their next vote. The school board member that had previously been polite with me told me that I “had my chance to speak and this is for the town only.” She is mistaken however by asserting that the process was fair. The Native delegation was addressing a part of the board with an informational tone, while the residents gave testimony to a full board in a much bigger room. They were two very different events and called for different types of testimony.

The next meeting was the regular monthly school board meeting. A small group of supporters of changing the name were there, myself included. The front two rows were primarily comprised of residents of the town that were there to be vocal about keeping their mascot, the Indian. They were told at the beginning of the meeting that the comment section of the meeting was for topics other than the mascot because they had already heard from both sides extensively through the forums, meetings, and emails/phone calls/letter/in person conversations leading up to the vote. Still the people from the town yelled out threats and rude remarks, passed in petition signatures to keep the name even though they had been told not to, and one lady from the boosters club exclaimed loudly that the booster club would not pay for the changes to the uniforms.

A few school board members spoke. Those that spoke for changing the name were booed and yelled at. Those that spoke for keeping the name were cheered for. It was a very chaotic and almost frightening room to be in. One board member was asked if there had been pressure from town selectmen to keep the name and she admitted that at a selectmen board meeting she was told that if they voted to change the mascot their school board budget would not get passed. Another school board member expressed concern about threats and retaliation following the vote. The people from the town were loud and vocal the whole time and were completely out of order and not following the protocol for the meeting, even after being asked to be quiet.

No one was escorted away by the police officer as they did to me.

A school board member made a motion to change the mascot. Right before the vote the school board member who had emailed with me and lied to me about being invited to the public forum yelled out loudly, “The taxpayers will pay for all the changes!” This got a huge response from the crowd.

They voted 11-9 to keep the mascot. It could not have been closer. This is remarkable considering the contentious and unruly nature of the room. 

Barry Dana and I went outside and were approached by the media to give statements on the vote. People drove by in vehicles yelling “Indian pride!,” “The Indian name stays!,” and “Go home!” The reporters we were talking to were frazzled by the yelling and hate directed at us.

At the beginning of that school board meeting they showcased a young man who is a student that the high school. He had won a speech contest and presented his speech to the school board. He approached us in the parking lot to apologize for how we were treated. He said that many students want the change but feel as though the school board will only listen to the people from the town that are bullies and using intimidation and threats to get their way. He was embarrassed by how the adults in the meeting were conducting themselves. He offered to help us in any way he can and assured us that many people want the change, including students that did not have their voices heard.

Another great example is the young man who started the “Keep Skowhegan the Indians” facebook page. He quite publicly changed his mind because he was troubled by the lack of love and humanity shown to the Native Americans and he said that as a Christian he saw pain in our eyes and knew he had to do the right thing and support us in wanting the name changed. He has turned over that page to another administrator and has been active in our cause. He also assures me that many in the town are silenced by bullying, threats, and intimidation like we saw in the meeting that night.

As with any public event or figure these days’ social media will play a huge role in the discussion. Immediately following the vote there was back and forth comments on the Skowhegan Indians page. Most of it was banter about why or why not to change the name. However, some of their supporters have threatened and harassed myself and others in the change the mascot movement to the point of hate speech. All of the comments have been removed but I can supply screen shots that were taken. Things like calling me an “Indian whore,” telling us to “beat our war drum somewhere else,” saying that we are “pussies” and that “Custer should have killed all the Indian’s ancestors.” One man talked about giving Barry Dana a “beat down” and feeding him to alligators. There are more instances; these are some that stick out.

Where do we go from here?
The fact is that children in this district are not getting a quality education with this mascot still in use. The negative aspects of the mascot aside, the town is in turmoil and divided over this issue. The children are learning that bullying, intimidation, threats, and racist behavior are not only tolerated but can be used to get your way against opposing views. Outside of the meeting a teacher approached me and begged me not to give up because she has students in her class (young children) that are being bothered by this. I had a sting of tears in my eyes for those kids since I am a parent of young children and can relate to wanting to protect their innocence and kindness towards all people.

I would not let my children attend or even visit the Skowhegan Schools as it stands right now know that the people that made these threats and comments to me and my family are in the town. I know young people with teaching degrees fresh out of college that will not teach in the district because of the intolerant atmosphere and racist undertones. This issue will not go away and it will only get worse as long as they fight to keep their racist practice alive. These names and mascots are changing all over the country. In fact, Oregon just became the first state to ban Indian mascots in all schools. Lancaster New York just changed their Redsk*ns mascot after a long and bitter battle much like Skowhegan’s. The school board made the right decision in Lancaster because of the turmoil in the school and insight from local native tribes.

I am requesting that at the very least you look into this case. The school board member that I alluded to is also the administrator for the private group that they have set up in support of keeping the name. She has also posted things to her personal facebook page as far back as February urging the people to rally behind the Indian name by using scare tactics and veiled threats. It seems that she should represent the entire district, not just those that agree with her. I find her intense involvement to be an abuse of power at the worst and inappropriate at best.

Maulian Smith is a member of the Penobscot Nation and lives on Indian Island, Maine. She is a married mother of two daughters and a step daughter. She works as the Human Resources Director for the tribal business enterprise.