Nearly 256 years after the colonial government of British King George II placed a rich bounty on Indian scalps, Maine’s Regional School Unit 12 (RSU 12) has voted to ban the use of the Redskins name and mascot from all eight schools it governs. The next day as many as 70 of Wiscasset High School’s students staged a walkout protesting the decision. “We would like it to stay Redskins,” a Wiscasset High School student said at the protest. “We use the term with pride… and the majority of the town wanted to keep the name.” One student held a sign that said, say no to change. A Facebook group called “1000 Strong Against Changing the Wiscasset Redskins name” had more than 1,000 members soon after it was created in September.
Last summer the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) asked the board to drop the name—which Wiscasset High School had used for almost 70 years—because it offends Native Americans in general and in particular Maine’s four Wabanaki nations—the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot, the Maliseets, and the Micmacs—who view the name as symbolic of the region’s historic racist policy of genocide toward indigenous people. “There was a bounty put on scalps of Indians,” Cushman Anthony, a MITSC member, told Portland, Maine’s, WMTW television station following the walkout, “and when you brought one in it was called a red skin because it was bloody… [Native Americans] experience [redskin] as a slur the same as the N word was experienced by black people.”
The decision means the district joins a growing number of educational institutions across the country that have dropped offensive Indian-related references. (In 2000, Maine’s legislature banned the word squaw from public places.) Although the NCAA banned the use of offensive Native American nicknames, mascots and logos in college sports more than five years ago and most colleges have complied, the debate rages on. MITSC’s request to RSU 12 sparked a four-month discussion that included heated rhetoric, high emotions and some unconscious racism worthy of a Stephen Colbert satire. But the ugly stuff took place outside the school, Wiscassett Principal Matt Carlson said. “The most gratifying thing for me was watching how my students really worked hard at being respectful and trying to understand both sides and at being civil and not degrading anybody.”
As difficult as the process has been, MITSC Chairwoman Jamie Bissonette Lewey said she is encouraged by the outcome. “It’s a story about what happens when people really do hear each other,” she said. “A lot of effort went into having very open conversations about a very difficult subject with the leadership of RSU 12, the principal, teachers, students and I think in the end it paid off. It has been very difficult, but I would say that the leadership has been doing what it could to facilitate a responsible and respectful conversation.”
There was resistance to change within the school board, “and it was strong and deep,” Bissonette Lewey said. Eugene Stover, a RSU 12 board member and one of the most vocal opponents of dropping the Redskins name, said during a board debate, “We’ve had this in our system since the 1930s and have never once demeaned the Redskin mascot. It’s been treated with dignity and respect. Where is the problem?” Wiscasset residents voted 503-128 against the change in an unofficial survey on Election Day last November. “Those who want to change this should be shot,” someone wrote on a ballot slip, Bissonette Lewey said. She said other comments by some mascot committee members during a meeting in November included the complaint that, “We can’t call the blacks Negroes any more, now you’re telling us we can’t call Indians redskins? Next thing will be not to call Japanese yellow.”
“These statements were getting play in the press, as they should, because they were made in public forums by people who have positions of leadership inside the community, but at the same time while all that was happening, much more thoughtful conversations were happening quietly and on a lot of differently levels,” Bissonette Lewey said.
A high point in the process occurred earlier in November when 18 Wiscasset students, Carlson and three teachers visited the Passamaquoddy Reservation at Sipayik to meeting with a group of Indian, European, black and Latino students involved in a youth program promoting diversity, anti-racism, conflict resolution and relationships across races and cultures. It was the first time Wiscasset students had come into contact with Native students, and the first time Passamaquoddy had invited outside students to the reservation. “It was very, very powerful,” Carlson said.
But, after comments made by the mascot committee members later that month some deemed derogatory, educators and tribal leaders at Passamaquoddy canceled a trip to Wiscasset, citing racial intolerance and an unsafe environment for their children.
Maine has a long and ongoing history of overt racial discrimination against Indians, blacks, and other non-white populations that have taken root there, most recently, Somali immigrants. But the core of the argument against the use of the term “redskins” is found in a 1755 document, the Phips Proclamation, which institutionalized genocide of the Penobscot Indians. The proclamation orders, “His Majesty’s subjects”—that is, British King George II—“to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” The colonial government paid 50 pounds for scalps of males over 12 years, 25 pounds for scalps of women under 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of boys and girls under 12. Twenty-five British pounds sterling in 1755, worth around $9,000 today —a small fortune in those days when an English teacher earned 60 pounds a year.
The mascot committee will now shift gears and propose an appropriate new name and mascot for Wiscasett High School, and both Bissonette Lewey and Carlson said reconciliation work will continue. “I’m so honored that we received the commitment to the good conversation that we got,” Bissonette Lewey said. “It’s not just this issue that requires the kind of discipline we need to have these hard conversations.”
While the state of Maine mandates the study of Wabanaki history in its public schools, “it’s not something we do a very good job at yet and it’s something we’re very seriously looking at and changing for next year,” Carlson said.
Last October, the school board asked Principal Carlson to form a special mascot committee of students, teachers and community members to study the issue and make a recommendation, but it had not completed its work before the school board vote. “I don’t think this is over,” Carlson told This Week From Indian Country Today. “I think you’ll see a group of people return to the school board and ask them to reconsider their decision and ask the committee to continue its work.”
Meanwhile, Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot Indian Nation’s representative to the Maine Legislature, told the Bangor Daily News that he would introduce a bill to the legislature to ban the use of American Indian nicknames, mascots and imagery from all public schools in Maine. He said the school nicknames are blatantly racist and need to change now. “Why don’t they call them whatever their significant cultural background is from their community? If they are Italians call them their offensive nickname for Italians or Germans. Why don’t they call them that instead of Native people?”