Thanks to many years of outreach to Maine schools by tribal leaders, all except one of Maine’s Indian-themed mascots have been retired. Community efforts have recently renewed in Skowhegan, aiming to persuade the school board to retire the one remaining mascot. Navigating these discussions is notoriously difficult and time consuming, but communities that invest the time to listen and learn from Indigenous peoples invariably find their communities strengthened as a result. Most who have been a part of these community discussions find the same issues and arguments raised, regardless of the town. In collaboration with representatives from the Penobscot Nation, we’ve compiled the most common arguments below, with suggestions for ways to respond.
If you are interested in supporting the effort to retire Maine’s final Indian-themed mascot, scroll down to the bottom for ways you can help.
1. “Our mascot honors Maine’s tribes.”
While many assume that using Native American imagery to illustrate fighting strength honors Native people, the only way to know for sure is to ask Native people themselves. On this, tribal leaders in Maine and around the country have been very clear: Indian-themed mascots do not honor them. In fact, they do the opposite. As the National Congress of American Indians states, “rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.”
2. “It’s our tradition.”
It’s hard to justify how non-Native people can claim that their tradition involves referring to themselves as “Indians,” while dismissing Indigenous people who claim the term for themselves. After generational struggles against efforts to eradicate all traces of their culture, family bonds, language, and land claims, the traditions that come with being a member of a Native tribe are considered sacred, not entertainment. In fact, most schools, like Skowhegan, adopted Indian-themed mascots decades after their founding, so in many cases the real tradition likely involved having no mascot at all.
3. “I’m of Scandinavian descent and I raise cows, but I’m not offended by the Vikings and the Cowboys. Native Americans shouldn’t be offended either.”
While folks should note that Vikings and cowboys are not races of people, and neither experienced oppression and genocidal policies at the hands of our government, the more important point is that it should always be up to the group being portrayed to determine if the portrayal is offensive.
4. “One time a Native American said he liked our mascot.”
It does happen sometimes, but it’s pretty rare and should not be taken as consensus of Native opinion. Leaders of all four of Maine’s federally recognized tribes are unified in their opposition to Indian-themed mascots. That’s about as close to consensus of Maine’s Native opinion as you’re ever likely to get.
5. “If we get rid of the Indian mascot, they’ll also make us change the name of the town or get rid of the Indian statue and town seal. Where will it end?”
Retaining Indigenous references in town names like Skowhegan and Norridgewok is considered respectful by Native Americans, and serves as a daily reminder that we are all living on Indigenous land. While Skowhegan’s “Indian” statue and town seal do little to promote understanding of and respect for Maine’s tribes, they are also unlikely to cause lasting harm. Indian-themed mascots, however, do. The tribes have stated repeatedly that they are only seeking replacement of the mascot.
6. “Come on, our Indian mascot doesn’t actually harm anybody.”
Actually, it does. Studies show that using such mascots lowers “the self-esteem of American Indian students.” The US Commission on Civil Rights has “called for an end to the use of Native American mascots in non-Native schools because they teach all students that stereotyping of minority students is acceptable.” The American Psychological Association publicly called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots,” saying that these “mascots are teaching misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.” When students and community members view Native Americans in this cartoonish way, it not only enables the erasure of authentic historic and current native culture, it also validates bigoted speech and actions. Indian-themed mascots are also opposed by the American Sociological Association, American Counseling Association, NAACP, National Education Association, United Methodist Church, National Collegiate Athletic Association.
7. “Replacing all the uniforms and gear will be too expensive.”
The good news is that there are organizations out there, like Adidas, that want to help schools retire Indian-themed mascots. Other schools have done a gradual replacement of their gear. There are plenty of options, and plenty of school administrators and coaches in Maine who have experience navigating this kind of transition.
8. “If you don’t live here, don’t tell us what to do.”
As long as Native children can attend Skowhegan’s schools and its teams can compete against Native students, the threat of harm and discrimination remains, affecting more than current Skowhegan residents. Because Skowhegan’s is the last of Maine’s Indian-themed mascots, all of Maine is now watching. We hope the Skowhegan community will come to their own conclusion that retiring the mascot is in everyone’s best interest, and the right move for the town’s image and its future.
9. “We got rid of the feathered dancing guy years ago. It’s a name, not a mascot.”
We applaud teams and schools, like Skowhegan Area High School, that have done away with the fake costumes, dances, hatchet gestures, and whooping. It’s a big step, but if the name remains, there’s still work to do. When a name is used like a mascot, it poses the same harm. Non-Natives claiming “We are the Indians!” is like Jewish people saying “We are the Muslims!” or vice versa. Being an “Indian” is more than a mascot, more than a name, and more than distant ancestry. Being a member of an Indigenous tribe comes with expectations, hard work, responsibilities, and a whole lot of trauma. Skowhegan residents have plenty to be proud of. Claiming to be a race of people that they aren’t is not one of them.
10. “Don’t Native Americans have more important problems to worry about?”
If you happen to live on planet Earth right now, there is no shortage of important problems to worry about. Fortunately, humans are pretty great at multitasking. Most of us can even work on global, national, local, and household problems all the same time. But one thing’s for sure: the harder we work to resolve problems together, the faster we’ll get them done.
Want to Support the Effort to Retire Maine’s Last Indian-Themed Mascot?
- Sign this petition that will be delivered to the school’s superintendent and the chair of the Maine Board of Education.
- Send an email to the school board and superintendent. Copy and paste their email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
- Attend the school board’s forum on the mascot issue on January 8, 6pm at the Skowhegan Middle School. Wear a mascot-free shirt to show a better kind of Skowhegan pride!
- If you live, work, or go to school in Skowhegan, if you are a member of one of the Wabenaki Nations, or if you are a current or former student, administrator, or coach from a school that retired an Indian-themed mascot, consider speaking at the forum on Jan. 8. We also encourage you to submit a letter to the editor. Need help writing your letter? Send us an email @firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also buy mascot-free stuff to show Skowhegan pride the right way!
- Read and share the letters to the MSAD 54 school board from the ACLU and Governor-elect Janet Mills.
- Learn more about Maine’s Wabanaki nations: the Micmacs, Maliseets, Penobscots, and Passamaquoddys at Motahkokmikuk and Sipayik at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Schools and institutions can also purchase the documentary Dawnland, which tells the story of Maine’s truth and reconciliation commission’s two-year effort to gather testimony and bear witness to the impact of the state’s child welfare practices on Wabanaki families.