Penobscot Chief to Selectmen: Drop the Redskins Road Name



Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Today, 9/16/14


Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis and former Chief James Sappier, an Elder Council member, have separately asked the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen to rescind a vote allowing a private road to be named Redskin’s Drive.

But if Selectman Bill Barnes has his way, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Francis wrote to the Wiscasset selectmen September 4 on behalf of the Penobscot Nation “to express our grave disappointment that you, in your duty as civic leaders, have condoned the perpetuation of the term ‘redskin’ by allowing it to be used as a road name within your town.”

The selectmen of Wiscasset, Maine, population 1,097, voted 3-1 with one abstention on August 21 to approve a resident’s request to name a small, private road Redskin’s Drive. Vice Chairman Ben Rines made the motion, Barnes and Selectmen Tim Merry voted with Rines to approve the motion, Selectman Jefferson Slack abstained and Chairwoman Pam Dunning voted against it.

RELATED: Take a Little Stroll Down ‘Redskin’s Drive,’ Newly Named Road in Maine

The offensive word has been a contentious issue in Wiscasset for years. In 2012 after a bitter yearlong battle, the school committee voted 4-1 to change the Wiscasset High School’s mascot from Redskins to Wolverines.

Francis told the selectmen that Nation citizens appreciated sharing their history and perspectives on the use of the Redskins name with the people of Wiscasset during that battle. “We remain grateful for the understanding and good will those leaders demonstrated by changing the name of their mascot. We understand that change is difficult and that people may feel nostalgic about certain aspects of their past, but we cannot quietly accept a sentimentality that hurts our people.”

The word is so offensive to American Indians generally and particularly to Maine’s Wabanaki nations – the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribal nations—because it reminds them of a time when they were hunted by settlers and their bodies and scalps sold to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Frances wrote. “The 1755 Spencer Phips Proclamation placed a bounty specifically on my people, the Penobscot, offering payment up to 50 pounds for each man, woman and child. When scalps were brought in for payment, they were referred to as ‘redskins,’” Francis wrote.

He talked about the real harm that derogatory terms like redskins have on Indian communities, eroding children’s self-esteem and contributing to the poorest educational outcomes and the highest suicide rates in the country. “Suicide rates among Native people have risen 65 percent in past ten years. The American Psychological Association called for the elimination of this term in 2005 citing serious negative consequences on the mental health of Indian youth and the Center for American Progress has recently deemed its use a civil rights violation,” Francis wrote.

Any use of the word is “extremely offensive,” the chief wrote, urging the board to overturn its decision. “It is not too late to make this sincere gesture and begin the journey toward deeper understanding and a mutually respectful relationship,” Francis wrote.

Sappier, who served as chief from 1986-1992 and from 2004-2006, told the selectmen that allowing the Redskins name to be used was based on racism or ignorance of the “true history” of the country ‘’where hundreds of villages were completely wiped out due to the small pox epidemic that ravaged through our tribal villages throughout the northeast,” he wrote, adding that the smallpox as deliberately introduced. “Please do change this racist name to one more acceptable [and] appropriate to/for all peoples,” Sappier wrote.

Barnes, the only selectman who could be reached, told ICTMN why he sees nothing wrong with the word in the following interview:

The Penobscot chiefs have asked you to rescind your vote allowing the Redskins name to be used because the word is offensive. Will you do that?

Well, I don’t feel it’s anything bad.

But Indians say the term is bad and offensive.

No, I really don’t feel its offensive.

But you’re not Indian, are you?

Nah, but I think what needs to be done is remember the Indians so they don’t get forgotten because if it hadn’t been for the Indians in this country the white man would have never survived.

The Indians are offended because the word was used to describe the scalping of Indians here in Maine.

I certainly wouldn’t do anything to hurt the Indians, that’s for sure!

Would you ask the board to rescind its vote?

I don’t think I would because I think the Indians need to be remembered and that’s one way to remember them.

But they say it offends them and it hurts their feelings and harms their children.

Well, I have all the respect in the world for them and I think a lot of us have a little Indian blood in us and I can tell you right now there is nothing I would do to hurt the Indians. Like I said, the white man would never have survived and what really bothers me is what the white man did afterwards – put ‘em on reservations and put ‘em places where they thought they wouldn’t exist. But a name? That name shouldn’t bring any harm to the Indian and I have all the respect in the world for the Indian and anything they’ve gotten, they certainly deserve.

But they would like you not to use the name Redskins.

I’m not going to recommend that it be taken down.