The Universal Notebook: Just say no to Redskins and Indians

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Once upon a time, there were close to 30 Maine schools that used stereotyped Native American mascots and nicknames for their sports teams – Indians, Braves, Warriors and, most offensive of all, Redskins, a racial slur that evokes scalping.

Now there are only three – the Skowhegan Indians, the Warriors of Wells, and Nokomis in Newport.

You’d like to think they’d know better by now.

The Skowhegan Area High School Indians are an embarrassment to the state of Maine. Warriors can be a neutral designation. But calling yourself the Indians when you are not Native American is racist, pure and simple. Saying you intend to honor Native Americans does not excuse such insensitivity. Intention doesn’t count if you are offending people. And Skowhegan has been told repeatedly by Maine’s tribes, the NAACP and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission that the use of “Indians” is offensive.

Skowhegan and Wells have been in news lately for offending the Native American people of Maine. It’s bad enough that Skowhegan stubbornly holds on to its racist nickname, but the local Chamber of Commerce launched a “Hunt for the Indian” retail promotion before local folks realized just how bad that made them look.

Wells Warriors were in the news because their fans allegedly donned war paint, beat on drums and whooped it up on the sidelines, offending a Native American family from the other school. Wells administrators seem to be dismissing the incident as a matter of school spirit, but when your school spirit inspires you to act like a fool, there’s something wrong with your school.

Most Maine schools and towns have been able to figure out for themselves that Native American names and mascots are inappropriate. Back in 2001, Scarborough High School led the way by changing its team name from the Redskins to the Red Storm. No doubt there are a few Scarborough alums who will always think of themselves as Redskins and who do not think of themselves as racists or even insensitive, but you do not honor a people by embarrassing them.

“Redskin” is a slur. Recognizing this, Sanford High changed its name from the Redskins to the Spartans and the Wiscasset Redskins became the Wiscasset Wolverines, albeit with a little backsliding before putting the racist mascot away for good. Elsewhere, the Old Town Indians became the Coyotes and Fort Kent Warriors kept their name but changed their logo from an Indian head to a Trojan soldier. The Golden State Warriors of the NBA do not use a Native American on their logo, they use the Golden Gate Bridge and they seem to do very nicely, thank you very much.

The pros are the worst offenders, of course. The Cleveland Indians hang on to their Red Sambo caricature Chief Wahoo, and the Washington Redskins won’t even consider changing their offensive moniker because there’s big money involved. Not sure how Cleveland fans hold their heads up in polite society while wearing a racist cartoon Indian, but the Curse of Chief Wahoo may be responsible for the fact that Cleveland hasn’t won the World Series since 1948.

The Washington Redskins have aggressively resisted calls to clean up their act, even citing polls that purport to show that 90 percent of Native Americans do not object to the name Redskins. Most of those polled, however, turned out to be self-identified Native Americans who did not belong to any tribe.

Folks in Cleveland, Washington and Skowhegan will no doubt eventually get their minds right, but in the meantime I believe people who condemn their stubborn racist should simple shun them. Sports reporters should not use the racist nicknames when referring to the teams. And athletes who play for teams with racist mascots should be made to understand that they are complicit in the racism and have a role to play in overcoming it.

I mean, how do minority players on Cleveland and Washington teams put up with demeaning another minority. Would they play without complaint for the Cleveland Asians, Africans or Latinos? Do the Washington players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence in the black community not realize that Redskins is tantamount to the n-word?

In Skowhegan, it’s probably just a matter of school officials waiting out a few belligerent defenders of white male privilege, but you’d like to think that student-athletes would lead the way on social justice. All those field hockey state championships, ladies, are empty accomplishments if you won them as faux-Indians.

Come on, Skowhegan, you’re better than this. Challenge your students to come up with a better name, a better logo and a better future for your school and your community.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.