As the movement to end the use of the Washington football team’s racist name grows across the country, one small town in Maine is headed in the opposite direction.
The Board of Selectmen of Wiscasset, Maine, population 1,097, voted 3-1 with one abstention on August 21 to approve a request to name a small, private road “Redskin’s Drive,” local media reported.
The new road name comes after a contentious yearlong battle to change the Wiscasset High School’s (WHS) mascot from Redskins to Wolverines. That name change occurred in a 4-1 decision on May 7, 2012, when the school committee voted to stop using the term 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.
Ashley Gagnon, a 2002 WHS graduate, requested the name change, saying it was about showing pride for the school and town, the Wiscasset Newspaper reported. When Gagnon heard that the selectmen approved her request, she said, “Yay,” adding that she was happy the town was willing to give that name to the road she and boyfriend Jeff Fortier live on. “We should be proud,” she said. She said spelling the name with an apostrophe was meant to help avoid controversy. It means someone who lives there was a Redskin when that was the school mascot, Gagnon said.
Gagnon said she has Native American ancestry and doesn’t consider Redskin an offensive word, according to the report.
Sue Barney, Wiscasset town assessor’s agent and E-911 addressing officer, said the name change request was also supported by Michael and Sara Harvey — the only other property owners on the road, the Bangor Daily News (BDN) reported.
During the yearlong public debate in 2011-2012 over changing the Wiscasset High School’s mascot name, MITSC Chairwoman Jamie Bissonette Lewey (Passamaquoddy) provided the historical context for the name “Redskins”: the 1755 Phips Proclamation, a document 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.”
At the August 21 selectmen’s meeting, Vice Chairman Ben Rines made the motion to allow the name. Selectmen Bill Barnes and Tim Merry voted with Rines to approve the motion, Selectman Jefferson Slack abstained and Chairwomen Pam Dunning voted against it.
“My objection is that there are some people who find that word extremely offensive,” Dunning told the BDN. “I can sympathize with them. I don’t find it offensive. I think the kids in the school system have used ‘Redskins’ so long, and it’s been a word of pride for them — it’s like warriors, it’s like soldiers. They don’t look at it as a racial term. They just look at it as a ‘big strong guy’ term. But keeping in mind that other people find that term offensive, I just thought it was a good idea [to vote against it].”
The selectmen’s decision to approve the name comes as pressure to ban the names grows. In June, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, ruling that the football team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” The team’s lawyers have appealed the ruling in federal court.
Penobscot Nation citizen Paul Bisulca, former Nation representative in the Maine Legislature and former chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, told the BDN that he explained to Wiscasset selectmen years ago how offensive the word is to Native Americans and thought they understood.
“I think it was made clear that ‘redskin’ is not a term which honors Native Americans in the least. Someone who doesn’t understand that is ignorant, and those who understand it and use it are hateful,” Bisulca said. “It seems to me that people who care about how people view the people of Wiscasset would oppose this. People just look at Wiscasset with disdain when they behave in this manner. It’s very disappointing to me.”