School officials in Skowhegan heard from dozens of local residents, students, and tribal members Tuesday night about whether to retire the high school’s Indians mascot. While several other districts have retired and replaced Native American mascots in recent years, Skowhegan High School is the only school in the state that still uses the name.
Despite snow and freezing rain, residents packed into the Skowhegan Area Middle School gymnasium Tuesday night to make their voices on the long-running controversy heard.
Three years ago, after a contentious public hearing, the school board voted to keep the mascot in place. But last fall, tribal members asked for reconsideration. Another public hearing was scheduled.
This time, only about a dozen supporters of the mascot asked to speak. Joel Stetkis, of Canaan, argued that the Indians name is an integral part of the town's history and identity.
"To me, Skowhegan Indians is much more than a painting or a sculpture,” Stetkis told the board. “It is being part of a community bigger than yourself that has taught me to work and serve with others."
Some younger students also weighed in. Skowhegan eighth-grader Emily Lachappelle says she thinks the name unifies her classmates, wherever they are.
"We will always be Skowhegan Indians,” she said. “And not for four years, but for life."
But supporters were significantly outnumbered by those who want the mascot changed. Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana was one of several tribal members who spoke, saying he found it outdated and offensive.
"Your idea, of honoring, as I have witnessed it, is honoring something that was in the past - something of the noble savage,” Dana said. “Today, we are fighting, and we’re asking you to honor us, as fighters, to retire the mascot."
High school junior Kayla Dickinson and some of her classmates say they are uncomfortable using a nickname that some consider disrespectful. They also say its use promotes bullying by other students.
"The kids in our school need a safe place,” Dickinson told the board. “And right now, you are not providing that. I believe having a derogatory name as our mascot excuses kids who use derogatory language in our school."
Young tribal members echoed that point, including Dylan Smith, the president of the American Indian Student Organization at the University of Maine at Orono.
"At the end of this, would you rather have students and other people feeling unsafe in your community and your school?” Smith asked. “Or give them the option to feel safe, honored, and respected?"
The board’s next steps are still uncertain. District Superintendent Brent Colbry says the board has a range of options and will likely take some sort of action in the near future.