Sunday, August 9, 2015

Is It Finally Safe To Object To Skowhegan's Offensive Mascot? #mepolitics

I am pleased to have permission to share this guest post by Stephanie Victoria Mitchell, a Penobscot woman who spoke at a recent rally to retire the Skowhegan High School mascot. I took this photo of her speaking, and I followed up with her to find out more.

Ms. Mitchell's thesis that it is now safe to speak out about objections to the mascot is ironic. Organizer Maulian Smith actually received threats in response to organizing the rally. And an online comment on an article about the rally called to "torch the Indian" referring to a landmark wooden sculpture by artist Bernard Langlais in Skowhegan. Police are currently investigating that apparent threat by a mascot supporter using the screenname Aviator2. 
My name is Stephanie Victoria Shay Mitchell. 
I am the daughter of Charles Rudolph Shay and Debra Doak, the granddaughter of Lawrence Shay and Madeline Tomer, and the great granddaughter of Leo Shay and Florence Nicolar. I am Penobscot.

I have heard about a lot of people saying things like “Why now?” “Why is this offensive now and it wasn’t before?” ”Why didn’t your people say anything 20 years ago? 50 years ago?” I’d like to try to answer that question. 
Most people are aware of the situation with the tribal representatives who walked out on the State over the summer. [My note: Here's a link to the New York Times reporting on that.] 
My great grandfather, Leo Shay, held that seat for two terms during his lifetime: first in 1915 when he was 26 years old, and then again in 1939 when he was 40 years old.  He died before I was born, so some of my information comes from the oral traditions of our people. Some of it I researched and read during my summer internship with the Penobscot Cultural and Historic Preservation Department nearly a decade ago, and some of it I’ve researched recently in order to present accurate facts and dates here today.

By 1939, when Leo was seven years older than I am today, he realized that tribal representatives were paid only a fraction of what his Caucasian State counterparts were paid. He also realized that tribal representatives did not receive travel expense reimbursements, while the Caucasian State representatives did. And he knew something should be done about this. 
At this point, you have to understand that we’ve always been allowed to speak since our ancestors first tried negotiating with yours. Our representatives were never allowed to vote, but we could speak our minds, have our voices heard, and make requests. Well, almost always. When Leo asked for equal pay and travel reimbursement through Mr. McGlauflin of Portland and the presentation of L.D. 188 and L.D. 879, the State took away our speaking voice, literally. Tribal representatives were no longer allowed to speak during the Legislative Session. Our representatives were only allowed to sit and listen. And that’s only if they could afford to pay their own way there.

Soon after, Leo started receiving threats. He had reason to believe his children could be in danger, his wife might be harmed. I was still a child when my grandparents and parents were discussing this. So, of course, I was sheltered from the most gruesome details, even with all my masterful eavesdropping.

Leo never went back to the legislature. And it wasn’t until 1975, seven years before I was born, that the speaking rights of our tribal representatives were restored, and equal pay and travel reimbursement granted. As far as I know, no one followed through on any threat. But it was there. And my grandparents remembered that. My parents remembered that. I remember that.

So, you ask “Why now?”  Well, it’s safe now. We can ask that you not continue with this horribly offensive, hurtful, harmful and racist mascot, and you’re probably not going to gun us down for it. No one is going to set a cross on fire in my front yard, and my children are safe. You are a different people than your ancestors were. I recognize that. And I thank you for that. But please, it’s important that you continue to make different choices than what your ancestors did. 
Thank you. 
Penobscot Legislative Representatives, list
Brief History of Indian Legislative Representatives
LEGISLATIVE RECORD-HOUSE, MARCH 2, 1939, page 8 of 10 

The 1939 legislative record shows that a representative from Skowhegan killed the bill by moving to postpone considering it, indefinitely.

My own grandfather, Brooks Elliott Savage, also served in the Maine Legislature. As a member of the Caucasian Nation, he did receive equitable pay and travel expenses for doing so. I wonder how he voted in 1941 when the legislature made an historically wrong decision to remove even the speaking rights of its native representatives? I would like to think that he was among the 25 legislators who voted against silencing tribal representatives.  I will be looking into this.

In a related note, when Penobscot and Passamaquoddy representatives withdrew from the Maine Legislature in May, some legislators supported their decision. Here's a facebook post by a Penobscot historian responding to news coverage of the walkout by WABI-TV:
By standing up to racism, we as allies can send the signal that bias-related threats and bullying will not be tolerated. 

By remaining silent when offensive comments and stereotypes are used, we send the signal that it is still not very safe to speak out.

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