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Goodbye “Redskins”: Maine is Free of Offensive Names in High Schools

In a 4-1 decision on Monday, May 7, the Sanford School Committee voted to stop using the ugly team name that is so offensive to American Indians generally and, locally, to Maine’s Wabanaki nations – the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribal nations. The school committee was urged to banish the name by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) and individual tribal members.

Addressing the committee and MITSC directly on her Facebook page, Penobscot citizen Donna Loring wrote, “Sanford, you made a very good decision with a little education and compassion about historic events. Maine Indian Tribal State Commission you did some awesome work! Thank you and congratulations! There IS still hope.”

Last year, MITSC successfully persuaded the school board that oversees Wiscasset High School to abandon the racist “Redskins” name after months of painful conflict. The process this year at Sanford was less contentious but not without its emotional moments.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, MITSC’s executive director, issued a written statement congratulating the Sanford committee on its decision. “MITSC applauds the Sanford School Committee for voting tonight to stop using immediately the offensive high school mascot redskins. The Commission hopes Sanford will build on this positive step by becoming a model school system teaching about Wabanaki history, culture, government, and the political challenges that the Wabanaki Peoples face today. MITSC also thanks the Sanford faith community, especially the Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist Churches, for opening themselves to listen, learn, and speak with a powerful moral voice for justice” Dieffenbacher-Krall wrote.

On April 11, MITSC held a “community conversation” in Sanford’s North Parish Congregational Church where 50 community members talked to MITSC members, tribal council members and other local Native people. MITSC Chairwoman Jamie Bissonette Lewey provided the historical context for the name “Redskins”: the Phips Proclamation, a 17th century racist policy that called for the genocide of the Penobscot Nation whose people had resisted the colonization of their lands. The proclamation named the Penobscots as “Enemies, Rebells, and Traitors to his Majesty King George the Second,” and required Massachusetts residents to “Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” It set out a schedule of payments “for every Indian Enemy that they shall kill and produce the Scalp.” Scalps of Penobscot men over 12 years of age fetched 50 pounds; female scalps brought in 25 pounds; and scalps of children under 12 brought in 20 pounds. The bloody scalps were called “Redskins.”

The Sanford vote took place during an emotional public hearing Monday night, the Press Herald reported. The school had been using the “Redskins” name for its teams and mascot since the early 1940s and people had mixed feelings about dropping it. Sanford students were happy to see it go, according to the report.

“I don’t take pride in the name,” Natalie Dionne, a senior who competes in three varsity sports, said. “It says a lot that we are the only high school in Maine that has a Native American mascot.” Michaela Dwyer, a senior on the cheerleading squad, also spoke against the name. “I think it’s shameful,” she said. “If just one person is offended, it is one too many.” And Emily Bordeau, a senior and a varsity athlete, said, “To represent our school with that name does not make us proud.”

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But others were reluctant to let go of the name, the report said. Around a decade ago, the committee prohibited students from wearing face paint and Native American headdresses or using the Redskins logo, but they continued to call themselves the Sanford Redskins.

Roland Cote, a retired Sanford High history teacher and basketball coach, who wanted the committee to keep the name, held a statue of the head of a Native American wearing a traditional western eagle feather bonnet – the stereotype of “Indian” portrayed in movies and other popular culture. Cote said he believed there was a “conspiracy” in town to do away with the name, and he pointed out that students had not been consulted on how they felt about dropping the name, the report said.

“How can we evaluate the opinions of students when they never had a mascot?” Cote said, referring to the 10 years they have gone without one. Another resident, Paul Auger, a Sanford High School graduate, said, “No matter how you vote tonight, you are not taking away my Redskins (varsity sports) jacket or my yearbook.” Auger said the town never meant to offend Native Americans, the report said.

It’s hard to break through decades – or centuries – of racist indoctrination, Loring told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I was surprised that they actually voted to remove it without a lot of threats and screaming that has gone on in other places and, yes, I am referring to Wiscasset. It does just prove that some people are reasonable and willing to listen to others and have some empathy. I think it is really hard to convince people because they only know what they have been taught and what their parents have been taught. It's generations of thinking and not really understanding what Native people have suffered and not only suffered but accomplished,” Loring said.

The use of ugly names like “Redskins” is not a disease, but rather a symptom of a disease called “ignorance,” Loring said. “I totally believe if we told the entire truth we would have to rewrite the history books and then we would have to start undoing the harmful policies put into place to keep us captives in these concentration camps they call reservations.”

That would by necessity require changes in the economic, legal and social justice policies that have kept and continue to keep American Indians from having the same opportunities as everyone else, Loring said. “They would have to treat us like first class citizens and stop raiding our resources and stealing from us with no consequence. History does repeat itself and this country is destined to keep repeating it's injustices to other cultures and other countries until it looks at itself in the mirror and fixes some of those outstanding blemishes it has on its face, and that's the ugly truth,” Loring said.

The Sanford School Committee instructed the superintendent, high school principal and students to come up with a list of three or four proposed new names for the school teams. The committee will chose a new name in time for the new school year in September.