Cultural appropriation exists in many forms. Most plainly, it exists when groups take or use something from a culture which they do not identify with, and do so without an understanding of or a respect for the culture’s history. A notable example of this exists right here in Maine, as Skowhegan High School continues to debate the use of their Indian mascot in recent public hearings. The multiple year long debacle has divided the town as opponents of the mascot work to depict just how harmful a stereotyped image of a culture can be.
Skowhegan school sports teams have used the Indian mascot for decades, and have voted to preserve their mascot on two separate occasions, once in 2001 and again in 2015, after receiving requests from different Native American organizations calling for change. However, the most recent 2015 vote is up for debate after yet another request from local tribal members asking the Skowhegan school board to reconsider. When opponents of the mascot came forward, they argued that the mascot promotes harmful stereotypes and creates an unsafe environment for Native youth.
They are not alone. National organizations have worked for years to eradicate the use of high school and sports team mascots nationwide. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the oldest and largest advocacy organization for American Indian and Alaska Native groups in the nation, and first launched their Native representation in media movement in 1968, which included sports logos.
According to the NCAI, mascots and logos do more harm than good. They argue that “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.” In high school settings, where local Native youth are exposed to these images, there can be larger amounts of psychological, social and cultural consequences as children learn and form impactful and potentially harmful self images of how they and others view their culture.
The use of Indian-themed mascots has also been opposed by the National Indian Education Association, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association, American Counseling Association, NAACP, United Methodist Church and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
However, another national group has decided to come to Skowhegan to stand with supporters of the mascot. The North Dakota-based Native American Guardians Association (NAGA) dedicate themselves to “education: not eradication” as they state on their website. Their mission involves preserving the use of Native facts, images and names that have been removed from history, and the group believes that Indian mascots are one example of this preservation. This group plans to meet with supporters in Skowhegan but has not invited any members of the local Skowhegan Penobscot tribe, therefore nullifying any chance of productive debate and simply adding fuel to the fire of an already divided group.
Beyond national attention, the Skowhegan mascot debate also reached the ear of Gov. Janet Mills, who sent in a letter to the School Administrative District 54 shortly after she was inducted in January. In her letter, she highlighted the fact that while mascots are seen as unifying symbols for towns and can therefore be hard to let go of, the decision to rename the Skowhegan mascot is an important one.
“We have heard now from Maine tribes, clearly and unequivocally, that Indian mascots, while meant to serve as a tribute, are instead a source of pain and anguish,” said Mills. “I hope you will remember that changing your mascot does not change you as a people.”
Mills’ comments were echoed by the many opponents of the mascot who attended the most recent Skowhegan public hearing in January of this year. Skowhegan students in a Maine Public Radio article were quoted explaining how a derogatory name for a mascot excuses derogatory language that is used in their school, thus creating an unsafe and uncomfortable environment within the high school. Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana also attended the hearing, and labeled the mascot as “outdated and offensive.”
No one understands the painful history of a culture more than those whose ancestors endured it. USA Today reported that high schools across the nation started adopting Indian team names around the 1920s and 1930s, the same time that the use of Native language or the practice of Native religion was banned. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 provided federal funding to boarding schools designed to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. While these egregious acts were being forced upon Natives, and as they were banned from practicing their cultures, students wore feathers, mocked chants and offensively danced on the sidelines of sports games.
Skowhegan history is no stranger to brutal treatment of Native Americans. The Skowhegan Native population was persecuted during the fourth Anglo-Abenaki war of 1722 to 1725, where over 150 Native Americans were massacred during the Battle of Norridgewock over native land that was desired by English forces.
When members of a tribal community step forward to assert that the use of their culture as a mascot is offensive, especially in light of historical treatment of Native peoples, individuals outside of that culture do not get to refute that claim. Studies such as those conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona on the consequences of American Indian mascots have proven that the use of such mascots lowers American Indian students’ self esteem, teaches misleading messages and erases authentic history. This study, along with the accounts from tribal members, are more than enough cause to change a high school mascot.
Uniforms can be replaced, paintings can be covered and mascots can, and should, be changed. While the public hearing in Skowhegan did not include a vote, if there is to be one in the future, school board members should listen to the urges of their local tribes to remove the derogatory name from their mascot and work towards uniting the community with another, more inclusive symbol.