On Thursday evening, more than 100 people packed a MSAD 54 school council meeting to hear local students, tribal leaders and community members explain why the persistence of an offensive mascot, the Skowhegan Indian, hurts native people as well as the greater community.
Maulian Dana, who serves as the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador, has been here before – she was involved in a similar, unsuccessful effort three years ago – but this time around she says proponents of change are more coordinated and says she has noticed that “minds and hearts” are changing among the people of Skowhegan.
“We are coming at this again and it’s more of an organized effort,” she explained, noting that both the ACLU of Maine and Governor-elect Janet Millshave weighed in on the fight. “It’s really nice to see all these folks standing for the right thing and not having to stand alone anymore.”
In 2015, Dana led an effort involving all the Indigenous Nations of Maine to have the mascot changed but lost by a slim vote. Skowhegan school board member Jennifer Poirier founded the closed Facebook group “Skowhegan Indian Pride” during that conflict. The group asserts that the mascot honors the history of the town and Dana argues that its members sowed a “climate of fear” in the local community and “bullied” many members of the board into voting against the change.
“It was bad to see small town politics and bullying overrule doing the right thing,” Dana said.
Supporters of change “let it simmer for a few years,” according to Dana, and have seen support for the campaign grown, including from some unlikely sources.
“Many people who went up through school system and are proud to be Skowhegan Indians and they’ve heard us and have educated themselves,” Dana said, “they now understand that mascots are a painful reminder [of our history] and have really come around to saying, ‘If this is the will of the people we think we are honoring, then it’s common sense to change it.’”
Skowhegan High baseball coach Rick York, whose Facebook post of a “scalp towel” was among the incidents that reignited the debate, apologized to Dana through a mutual friend and “expressed regret” for the offense.
York posted on the Skowhegan Pride group that he is now “neutral on this subject.”
Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard, an alumni of Skowhegan High School, posted on Facebook early last week that the “this is our heritage” argument is “ridiculous.”
“We are being asked to stop by the very people that we say we are honoring. What is the respectful and honorable thing to do?” wrote Howard.
The post has since been removed or made private.
Dana said that many others, including members of the 1600-member Skowhegan Pride group, have also expressed to her they’d like to see the mascot changed, which gives her hope.
“In my mind I built up a real wall against communication and education of these people,” Dana explained. “To see that minds and hearts can change and that we can find some common humanity on these things is refreshing. Social activism and social justice work can really wear you down. Part of that self care is realizing that human beings can change and can see the good in other human beings even if they disagreed with each other initially.”
Dana said she’s looking forward to the January 8th forum when the school board will allow any member of the public to voice their opinion on the question of changing the mascot. Of those who want to keep it, Dana said, “they don’t have much of a leg to stand on anymore and absolutely know it.”
However, if the board votes again to keep the racist nickname, Dana said she doesn’t see the issue “going away.”
“That’s when we start to play hard ball,” she promised. “This is the last chance for Skowhegan to do the right thing on their own.”
The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance.