Over the past fifteen years, a number of schools throughout our state have grappled with the issue of Native American mascots. At the crux of the matter is a desire by some to hold on to tradition. Does the need to maintain custom supersede the respect of all? What offends one does not bother all or perhaps even the majority. There are definitely some weighty issues to flesh out..
All mascots do not reach the same level of ire. Three schools in Maine have dropped the name ‘Redskins’. Word meanings do change over time and a number view the term ‘Redskin’ as a derogatory, racial slur. It should be noted, a school with a predominately Native American population in Arizona still uses the nickname ‘Redskins’. By predominately, I mean 98% of the school population. Other schools with the nickname ‘Warriors’ have dropped Native American imagery and have adopted a more generic warrior. Old Town High School, who have many students from the Penobscot Nation at Indian Island, have abandoned the name ‘Indians’.
Skowhegan Area High School is presently in the midst of such discussions. Drive through the middle of town and you are met by an imposing Indian statue. The town’s name was derived from Native Americans meaning “watching place (for fish)”. In the early 1720’s Abenaki Indians, located in nearby Norridgewock and Madison would fish the Kennebec River near what would be later called Skowhegan. Due to this history, Native American imagery is still very much alive in Skowhegan, hence the high school’s nickname “The Indians”.
The intent of the name is to honor the Native American heritage of the area. When those who are being ‘honored’ come forward and say otherwise then the platitudes of “we are honoring you” ring quite hollow.
By all accounts the administration and school board are handling the situation the right way. There are some politically correct groups who do not want a discussion. They want the school to reverse course and change immediately, shaming them in the process until they cave. To the school’s credit they appear to be listening to many voices on the issue, those who actually have a stake in this matter. They should be applauded for this. Recently, a number of representatives from the state’s Native American tribes met with school officials. Later on a forum will be held in which all parties can have a voice on the matter.
Skowhegan school officials have an arduous task ahead of them. As a country, we are not a nation of groups, but a nation of individuals. The tribal leaders who met with administrators last week do not represent the views of every Native American. In preparing to write this piece I spoke with one individual who does not have a problem with the name Indian. He did object to his people being caricatured as mascots. It is paramount that administrators listen to several voices during this process, as it appears they are doing.
By listening to all parties then hopefully some kind of understanding can be achieved as far as what is acceptable. This is not about political correctness but it is about being respectful to all. When the time comes to make a decision, weighing in all beliefs, administrators can then decide how to proceed. It should not come down to a popular vote. When it comes to issues of respect and dignity, it takes leadership to do what may or may not be the most popular.
Most would agree people groups are not mascots. Many do not have a problem with the Cleveland Indians yet a number of people take issue with the grinning mascot Chief Wahoo. The Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, who some believe was the first Native American to play Major League Baseball, although this is still disputed.
A reasonable compromise can be met in Skowhegan. Keep the name ‘Indians’ to honor the heritage of the community. Students, staff, and those from area tribes can then work together to educate in regards to appropriate symbolism and imagery. What a great educational opportunity could be had here! Rather than have an edict handed down from the top, students can be actively involved in these discussions, highlighting sensitivity towards others. This would indeed be truly honoring, as I’m sure is the intent.
So what about a mascot? Not all schools have active mascots. Take Houlton for instance. Houlton is named the Shiretowners to pay homage to the town’s history as the county seat in Houlton. This seems to work well for them.
After going through this process, if students and staff still wish to have a mascot then perhaps it is time the name ‘Indians’ be retired for good. It is simply a matter of respect and honor, which I’m sure the good folks in the Skowhegan school community are after.