Skowhegan “Indians” Debate Draws Passamaquoddy Participation

Passamaquoddy Dwayne Tomah was the first to speak at a meeting in Skowhegan that drew 200 participants. Skowhegan Area High School is currently in the midst of controversy over its high school team name. (Photo courtesy of John Harlow)

By Lura Jackson

In the center of Maine, a debate has taken hold of the community: should Skowhegan Area High School change the name of its high school teams from the “Indians” – a change supported by many indigenous members of the extended community – or keep them as is, in keeping with the group calling itself Skowhegan Indian Pride? At the most recent meeting, which took place on January 8th in Skowhegan and drew approximately 200 people, Passamaquoddy Dwayne Tomah was the first to speak out.

Tomah, who attended the meeting in traditional Passamaquoddy regalia, began by addressing the group in the Passamaquoddy language. He later translated: “This is not a game we are dealing with, people. Show respect.”

Tomah then continued in English: “We have inhabited this region for thousands of years. Thousands. Ten thousand years. We are not feeling honored tonight. This is hurtful. We all have our opinions and we must be respectful.”

Encompassed in the perspective of the Passamaquoddy – as is the case with Native tribes throughout America – is the relationship between the colonizing powers that continue to challenge indigenous authority, even over their own cultures. “Indigenous people have been abused,” Tomah expressed. “Hurtful words are coming out of this whole situation.”

Mascots, symbols, images, and personalities using the term “Indians” were suggested to be dropped by all teams in 2005 by the American Psychological Association, which advised that the image taught by such usage can be misleading and insulting. In 1990, Skowhegan stopped using the associated imagery but kept the name of the team; a resolution it reinforced at a school committee meeting in 2015.

Supporters of keeping the name as is refer to it as being part of the town and generally see it as a respectful reference to the first inhabitants of the area. Tomah, who was joined by approximately sixty others who spoke to change the name – including teachers, students, and the ACLU – sees it differently. “As an indigenous person, I’m not feeling honored at all. I do not know what to say to you to convince you that this is wrong. It’s wrong. So please, do the right thing, and honor those children out there by not sending this message to them – that it’s okay.”

 

While the majority of speakers at the three-hour meeting wanted the name changed, a core group continues to support keeping the name. No action was taken during the meeting, meaning the debate will continue.