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Symposium Questions Indian Nicknames and Mascots

This May a symposium called, “Respectful or Disgraceful: Examining Maine School Use of Indian Nicknames and Mascots” was held in Bangor.

As reported in the Portland Press Herald, representatives from the three Maine Tribes who attended said that schools who use American Indian nicknames do not honor their tribes. One topic at the symposium was the use by two Maine schools of “Redskins” as their nickname. Those schools are Wiscasset and Sanford high schools. Chief Rick Phillips-Doyle of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point said that the term “Redskins” is particularly offensive to him because it conjures up images of scalping. The term “Redskin” hits close to home here in Maine for many Indians. Penobscot historian James Francis explained at the symposium that British settlers were once offered a price for the scalps of Penobscot people. The 1755 Proclamation of Phips set a bounty for the killing of men, women and children in Maine. Francis stated, “If you understand the history of the Penobscot people, then there's nothing to cheer.”

One perspective presented at the symposium is that the use of Native American nicknames in schools presents an image of Indians as relics of the past, and hides economic and social issues that Native Americans currently face in Maine. Efforts to change these nicknames are "… beyond political correctness," said Wayne Newell, a leader among the Passamaquoddys, "It's the right thing to do."
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights agrees. In 2001 the Commission called on all non-Native schools with American Indian nicknames to change their name. The Commission stated in their report that "the stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other group, when promoted by our public educational institutions, teaches all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, which is a dangerous lesson in a diverse society."

The event in Bangor was organized by author Ed Rice and co-sponsored by all four of Maine's tribes along with the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC). MITSC was involved in passing the Maine law that caused the renaming of places with offensive names in Maine. MITSC is now taking an active role in encouraging Wiscasset and Sanford to change their names from “Redskins.” Because Wiscasset high school will soon be consolidated with other schools, MITSC believes that now is a great opportunity to change the nickname. MITSC has contacted the consolidating schools to encourage them to go ahead and drop the name “Redskins.” As for Sanford, a subcommittee of MITSC is working to promote a community-based approach that will encourage Sanford High School to voluntarily choose another nickname.

In contrast to offensive place names, there is no specific Maine statute that makes Indian nicknames and mascots illegal. For that reason, MITSC is not taking formal legal action. But there are some possible legal remedies for Indian people who are directly affected by offensive school nicknames such as “Redskins.” For example, Federal and State anti-discrimination laws prohibit public schools from supporting an environment that is racially hostile to some of its students. An Indian student may be able to claim that a school's Indian mascot creates a racially hostile environment. Another possible legal claim could be for infliction of emotional distress. This distress could be caused by the teasing that is often inspired by having a school nickname such as “Redskins.” A third possible legal remedy is related to a student's First Amendment right to free speech. When Indian students go to a public school, they are associated with its nickname and mascot, even if they don't agree with it. This can be considered a violation of the students' constitutional rights.

Sources:
THE PORTLAND PRESS HERALD, May 16, 2010, Steve Solloway, Solloway: It's more than a name and a mascot.

STATEMENT OF U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS ON THE USE OF NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES AND NICKNAMES AS SPORTS SYMBOLS.

Publication Volume: 
2010.2
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