Mascot Racism Returns? Maine School Board May Keep Redskins Name

Gale Courey Toensing
3/4/11

A regional school board in Wiscasset, Maine that voted to ban the use of the Redskins mascot from all eight schools it governs may decide to keep using the racist name after all.

Regional School Unit 12 (RSU 12) has as an item on its March 10 meeting agenda “to discuss requests from the Wiscasset High School (WHS) Mascot Committee and the Wiscasset Select Board, to reconsider the Board’s January decision to (immediately) cease use of the WHS ‘Redskin’ Mascot (POSSIBLE ACTION).”

The decision to revisit the controversial offensive name issue comes on the heels of a nonbinding referendum in Wiscasset on March 1 in which residents voted by a 5-1 margin to keep using the derogatory name and symbol. The vote was 279-53. More than 3,000 Wiscasset residents are registered voters, which means voter turnout for the Redskins question was around 10 percent, the Times Record reported.

David Nichols, chairman of the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen, and a 1956 graduate of Wiscasset High School, was pleased with the vote, the report said. “When they change the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, we should change ours,” Nichols said. But he acknowledged that the final decision rests with the school board, “who can do pretty much what they want to, and has been doing pretty much what they want to.”

RSU voted to ban the use of the Redskins name and mascot on January 13 after a four-month controversy that included heated debate, high emotions and another nonbinding survey of Wiscasset residents on Election Day last November. Residents voted 503-128 in support of the continued use of what has come to be called “the language of savagery” – words and images that demean and disrespect indigenous peoples and allow the historic injustices against them to continue. Soon after the school board ban, the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen voted to put the nonbinding question to the voters again.

The issue arose last summer when the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) asked RSU 12 to drop the Redskins name—which Wiscasset High School had used for almost 70 years—because it offends American Indians 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.

MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall said the recent vote in no way justifies the continued use of the offensive language.

“The people of Wiscasset may mean no ill intent when they use an unacceptable racial slur. In all likelihood, the Wiscasset people did not originally choose the Redskins mascot out of malice or to hurt the Wabanaki people,” Dieffenbacher-Krall said. “But the reality is the Redskins mascot does offend many Wabanaki people. What are people to conclude about a portion of the Wiscasset electorate that insists on retaining an offensive mascot when incontrovertible proof has been provided of its ugly and genocidal origins?”

The use of the term “redskins” in Maine 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.

Dieffenbacher-Krall noted that more than 13 years ago MITSC identified the need to educate Mainers about the Wabanaki people and their history and LD 291, An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture was enacted.

“Tuesday’s vote indicates we need to strengthen LD 291 and MITSC stands ready to work with RSU 12 and all school districts in Maine to achieve compliance with that law,” Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

Only one school in Maine—Sanford High School—still uses the offensive Redskins name, but the issue is being studied, said Superintendent Elizabeth St. Cyr.

“Our High School Civil Rights Team is taking this on, looking to do community surveys and research. They have met with the tribal representatives. The use of Redskins is decreasing, many substituting the block ‘S’ as the school’s insignia,” St. Cyr said.

The RSU 12 board, which includes members from seven other communities in addition to Wiscasset, formed the Wiscasset High School (WHS) Mascot Committee last fall to study the mascot issue and make a recommendation about a new name and mascot, but it hasn’t progressed very far, said committee member and former MITSC Chairman Paul Bisucla, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

“The committee hasn’t really accomplished anything. There’s too much filibustering, too much arguing. There was no willingness to accept the decision of the school board. They were going to go for another vote,” Bisulca said, adding that there was “absolutely zero discussion” about a new mascot at the committee’s February 15 meeting. “There are those on the committee who do not accept that the Redskins name should be banned. They are fighting tooth and nail to hold onto it.”

Bisulca said one of the committee members told him that the use of the name Redskins wasn’t objectionable when he graduated from Wiscasset High School in 1987.

“I said they weren’t informed then, but they’ve been informed now that the word is objectionable.  What matters is how they respond to that. If they continue to use the word it either means they are simply uncaring people or they are really racist people or it could be some of both.”

You have only to read Shakespeare to see how the use of language changes over time, Bisulca said.

“If you use someone else’s ethnicity now you may well run into the problems we have now, because you don’t own it; they own it, and it’s up to them to say if they’re offended by it, not you.”

The committee is scheduled to meet again on March 15.

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