Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Refusal To Retire Skowhegan Indian Mascot 'Tearing Families Apart'

Professor Charlene Teters, Spokane, a founding mother of the movement to retire Native sports mascots.

The greatest benefit of working to help retire Skowhegan Area High School's team name "Indians" has been furthering my own education. Today I learned about Charlene Teters, an artist/activist who has been leading this work for decades. Later in this post I'll share some of the resources coming my way, mostly shared by people I've gotten to know as a result of doing white people's work to address our systemic racism.

But first a word about that work, and why so many people who could don't join in the call to dismantle white supremacy.

Georgina Sappier-Richardson testifying at a Maine Wabanki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearing. Photo: Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy Upstander Project.

For one thing, the controversy is tearing families apart. While Harold Bigelow sits on the MSAD#54 school board and obstructs change, the younger members of his family cringe at being associated with what they perceive as antiquated racist practices.

At the board meeting in my own school district, which is near Skowhegan, they spent nearly an hour debating sports programs this month. This is not unusual. In my experience in Maine, school boards are about sports. They cleverly hide the true cost of sports programs funded entirely by local property taxes; budget line items such as administration, maintenance and transportation have tens of thousand of dollars in sports-related costs. 

Teaching positions are routinely eliminated without debate, but try and cut a sports program and watch board members sit up and start paying attention.

Heck, just try and postpone getting new uniforms by a year and then sit back and watch the fireworks.

At the MSAD#54 school board meeting on December 6, there were no speakers from then ranks of school staff or students. No coaches, no teachers, no civil rights team advisers. Nor did the assistant superintendent, Jon Moody, who is charged with compliance in non-discrimination practices, weigh in. The superintendent, Brent Colbry, felt free to school board members on correct use of Roberts Rules of Order, but then stumbled his way through a complete disavowal of agency or influence on the team name controversy. This is disingenuous of him, and he knows it.

Two school board members are actively leading an online group which has in the past posted threats of violence against Penboscot leader Maulian Dana and her children. Here are some recent posts:

In the very limited worldview of board members like Ring and Poirier, this is a local issue.  The national scope and significance of retiring white claims on Native culture and heritage is lost on them.

Their status as alumna is of paramount importance in their own minds, and it trumps concerns about adverse effects on the children they were elected to educate.

I believe that the root of this problem of cultural blindness is lack of education. So in the spirit of life-long learning, I offer a few resources.

First and foremost, this short video on the historic work of Professor Teters and the forces of opposition she met in her struggle to retire "Chief Illiniki" of the University of Illinois, "In Whose Honor?"

Next, very exciting to this history major, a recording in the Library of Congress of an Ancestral Voices Roundtable on Passamoquoddy culture and language. It was shared with me by one of the participants, Dwayne Tomah, who recommended it as a good source. Part of the description of this recording for researchers notes:

This panel discussion highlights a collaborative initiative to digitally restore, provide access to and curate the oldest recordings in the Library of Congress collections, the 1890s wax cylinder recordings of the Passamaquoddy tribal nation of Maine... Passamaquoddy elders have been reviewing the sonically restored recordings, transcribing songs and stories in their language...
The discussion focuses on several aspects of the initiative, ranging from control of indigenous intellectual property to digital repatriation to emerging digital technologies to ethical curation and community outreach. 
In particular, Passamaquoddy community members describe the critical importance of ethnographic field recordings for sustaining cultural memory, preserving native identity and stemming the loss of language. 
They perform songs learned through listening to the recordings, including the first public performance of a song not heard since its documentation 128 years ago.

Father and child on Penobscot ancestral territory. Photo: Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy Upstander Project.

My final offering for today is this excellent teaching guide created to accompany the documentary Dawnland. Passamoquoddy and other Native children were removed from the rich culture documented by the Library of Congress and punished for speaking their languages. In the 1970's. By the State of Maine.

Read this sorry history of white supremacy, weep, and then resolve to help undo these harms.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Tide Turns Against Native Mascot As Governor-Elect, Skowhegan Fire Chief Join In Calling For Retirement

The retirement of the racist "Indian" mascot wasn't on the agenda, but 100+ people showed up to discuss it anyway.
(Photo: Kevin Couture)

Media descended on the small town of Skowhegan, Maine for the school board meeting held December 6.  Some of the coverage was great; notably, local photographers contributed their skills to documenting an impressive turnout by Native people, many of whom drove hours each way to be on hand.

In the run-up to the meeting the board received a letter from the ACLU detailing why they need to drop this discriminatory practice; a letter from Governor-elect Janet Mills calling for the mascot's retirement; and a statement from Skowhegan's Fire Chief Shawn Howard making a particularly good point.

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Tribal Ambassador, had urged the Penobscot Youth Council to come and help educate us about the impact the mascot has on them. Seeing them enter just as the meeting was getting underway was exciting to this old teacher, because they represent the future. 

(Photo: Jeff Kirlin)

Many wore wore red in solidarity with Native women who experience disproportionate levels of violence including rape and murder. One young woman held a sign that said: "We are not your mascots. We are people, sacred, beautiful and strong. Respect Us."

(Photo: Jeff Kirlin)

Maulian's dad, past Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, was there. He looked every inch the proud father as Maulian told the board how frightening it is for her to address them. Threats from the Indian "Pride" group clinging to their outdated practice have included rape, and named her school age daughters as possible targets of violence and harassment. Some of these threats have been posted online and I've seen them. Real classy.

Maulian Dana at center addressing the board holding an eagle feather to illustrate one of the many aspects of Penobscot culture and ceremony that she said are not available for use by non-Natives. 

A benefit of ally work is the opportunity to meet so many people who enrich my life with their wisdom and compassion.

Amelia Tuplin, a mother who succeeded in getting the Wells, Maine native mascot retired, introduced herself. (We had only been facebook friends before and had never actually met.) Here she is on the right side of a photo that Maulian posted.

Native artist Dwayne Tomah thanked me for my advocacy and also thanked my sister, Hope, who was away visiting her grandchildren. He gifted us both with earrings to express his appreciation. (Photo: Mary Callan)

Mary Callan of Suit Up Maine was there and I had fun distributing the popular posters she helped create for the event. They are local versions of the Dawnland posters reminding white people of where we stand, literally.

This version of the Dawnland.org poster depicts a former Skowhegan High School building,
nostalgic for me as my father attended school there. (Photo: Kevin Couture)

We are printing these in 11x17 size and asking local businesses to display them.

A teen leader in Maine's struggle against corporate control of our ground water couldn't be on hand for the meeting but he sent a letter shared on social media:

Dear Skowhegan School Board Members, 
My name is Luke Sekera-Flanders and I am a sophomore at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. I would like to begin by apologizing for being unable to attend in person this evening, as a four and a half hour drive on a school night wasn’t possible. This “Indian mascot” issue is important to me, despite the fact that I live and go to school in another part of the state, because I want to help terminate institutional support of racist ideology. I am concerned because the use of Native Americans as mascots, appropriating cultural aspects and relegating an entire people to the likes of a caricature or parody, is not a dignified way to show respect. 
For disclosure, in 2015, my mom took me to listen to the Skowhegan School Board meeting where about one dozen Wabanaki people assembled to educate the Board on this issue. I learned so much on that day, more than I ever had in school on the subject. I’ll also not forget how the student leader of the “Indian Pride” group made the decision to not take part in promoting the Indian mascot after that meeting. I still have admiration for his resolve. 
As you likely know, genocide against indigenous peoples of the Americas has been ongoing for about 500 years, with tens of millions of indigenous people being killed and displaced. Although the "Indian Wars" ended in 1890, the last century has seen continued violence in subtler forms motivated by the same deep racism upon which many of the United States' institutions were founded. Although we are generations removed from the soldiers and scalp hunters who were paid by the government to kill and count the bodies of Native American men, women, and children, we live in a society that remains pitted against indigenous people. With such sports teams as the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, we see a consistent appropriation of culture which derides the suffering of generations of native people and reduces it to a thing of entertainment. 
When I was a middle school student, I petitioned our school board and superintendent to have our new school complex named after a well respected local Abenaki woman, Molly Ockett. She was a legendary native healer of the Pequawket, the area that is now Fryeburg. Naming our school after her was a respectful reminder to the community of the important offerings that she, as a native woman, made to the people of her homeland. I wanted to honor her memory in this way so that our community’s children would always be connected with our local Native American history in a respectful way. With the help of my mom, the school's name was kept. However, we do not have an offensive imagery or mascots associated with our school. 
Today, Skowhegan High School has an amazing opportunity to make a similar decision. Keeping this mascot would only do more damage to the broken bonds between native and non-native communities. Skowhegan has the last Native American related mascot in the state of Maine. With the help of the school board, we can rid Maine of the last of its mascots that are dehumanizing and stand in solidarity with Maine's native people. 
I hope that my words resonate with you. As a Maine youth, it is extremely important to me that we work toward creating a healthy future for ALL of Maine's children. Can we work together for a future where indigenous people across the U.S. have their dignity restored, be respected as equal beings and as sovereign nations? By removing the current mascot, you can bring us one step closer to honoring the truth and reconciliation process. Your children and my (future!) children deserve this. 
Thank you for your time and best wishes,
Luke Sekera-Flanders

WFVX Bangor interviewed several of us and their coverage is here.

The Waterville Morning Sentinel's coverage is here.

Maine Public Radio's coverage is here.

The story was poorly covered by WGME which aired a segment showing only repeated clips of the offensive imagery plus an interview with one white man saying he has been bullied because he supports keeping the mascot.

Wow, and they call the ACLU of Maine snowflakes.

Video of the entire meeting can be seen here. (Much of what was said by the school officials and by the public was inaudible because the district provided no microphones.) Thanks, Somerset Community TV 11 !