The Wells High School "W" logo, with a feather, is seen on the center of the basketball court during a girls basketball game. Credit: Courtesy of York County Coast Star

Community members, alumni, a Maine tribal leader and a Maliseet Indian who was a teacher at Wells High School for decades are among those sharing their opinions as the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District begins discussions around the Warrior team name and Native American imagery at the school.

The talks are coming in the wake of racism accusations stemming from a recent WHS football game against Lisbon High School that stirred much attention in the community and around the state.

WOCSD Superintendent James Daly said school officials are researching and gathering facts before bringing the issue before the School Board at its next meeting on Nov. 2.

[Maine high schools retain Indian mascots despite controversy]

“We want to be educated on the topic. We are talking to the people who have reached out to us on both sides of this issue, and we will reach out to more and more people as we move through this,” Daly said. “People want instant resolution, but we want to be very thoughtful and thorough and do our due diligence, and that takes time.”

Following an Oct. 13 football game at Wells High School, Lisbon parent Amelia Tuplin, a member of the Mi’kmaq Tribe, accused fans of demonstrating racist behavior toward her and her son, a player for the Lisbon Greyhounds.

Tuplin claimed in a letter sent to Daly that adult members of the crowd made hand gestures and “whooping sounds” as she and her son walked from the football field to the high school gymnasium after the game last Friday. Tuplin said she also felt the gestures were aimed her way.

“They just made a mockery of my culture and my heritage,” said Tuplin.

[Maine school to review Native American logo after racism complaint]

In conducting an investigation into Tuplin’s claims, WHS Athletic Director Pierce Cole said officials spent three days speaking to faculty and staff who were at the game, interviewing game officials who were on the field, reviewing 126 video clips shot by television news station WCSH-6 during the game, and reviewing affidavits from four police officers who were present.

Officials said the investigation did not reveal evidence of racist behavior. Cole noted that if officials had discovered that behavior in their investigation — whether by a student or an adult member of the community — “we would have handled it and addressed it appropriately.”

Daly said he’s appreciative of the dialogue that has taken place around the issue. He said there will be a chance for a full and open discussion with all interested parties as the process moves forward.

Daly said he welcomes a conversation with Tuplin, but she has not responded to an invitation following her initial complaint, and a letter he sent on Oct. 18.

Tuplin confirmed Wednesday that she received a letter from Daly on Oct. 18. She said she has not responded, and she would not say whether she would meet with Daly and Wells school officials to discuss her allegations.

“If he calls me, we can discuss that,” Tuplin said.

Tuplin indicated in an earlier interview that she planned to file a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine against the school. In an interview Wednesday she confirmed that she’s “making plans to move forward with that.”

‘Not your mascot’

Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, has been fighting mascots since she was 15 years old, when she saw the Nokomis Warriors playing the Skowhegan Indians using chants and warpaint.

“I asked my father (former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana) is this what people think of us?” Dana said. “I was confused, and it made me very upset and angry.”

Dana advocates for Maine’s indigenous people in Augusta and speaks to civic groups and schools statewide about her culture and the harmful stereotypes that still exist.

“Mascots that depict Indians are harmful and have negative impacts, especially when they use drums and symbols that are our sacred religious objects. They’re stealing our sacred religious objects and mocking them in these settings, and it’s harmful to our children,” Dana said. “Sometimes they are really racist and very violent, and so you have a whole mixed bag of things going on and none of it is good.”

Dana said the word “warrior” as a mascot by itself isn’t a problem, it’s the Indian imagery that’s used along with it. However, she thinks Wells should do away with the Warrior name altogether, to discourage the continuation of racist behavior.

“I think it would be wonderful if they changed their mascot. As long as you have that opening, there will be people who use it. There needs to be some real education. I think the people in Wells feel entitled to this, like they feel like they aren’t doing anything wrong.”

Native Americans in Wells

In contrast to what Tuplin says she encountered on the football field, is the way the town has honored one of its most beloved former residents, Valentine E. Ranco (Little Deer), a member of the Penobscot tribe.

Val Ranco, as she was known in Wells, owned the Indian Moccasin Shop on Route 1 for 53 years. She died in 2008 at the age of 96.

Since 2002, the town has hosted the annual “Val Ranco Pow Wow” at Wells Harbor Park.

The Wells Chamber of Commerce and the New Hampshire Intertribal Native American Council put on the annual event which features Native American dancing, drumming, flute music, vendors, storytelling, an auction, and draws a large crowd of all races each year, according to Chamber Director Eleanor Vadenais.

“Val Ranco lived in Wells most of her life,” Vadenais said. “The pow wow that we do is named in her honor. This is one of their (New Hampshire Intertribal Native American Council) most well attended and popular events that they host each year. There are tons of people that go to this and they learn about the culture. It’s a wonderful event.”

[Wells superintendent defends district after claims of racism at football game]

Despite the ties to the indigenous culture, the community has work to do, according to Dana. She said it’s important for people to know that none of the chiefs of tribes in Maine have endorsed the Wells Warrior mascot, despite claims that an Abenaki tribe in Wells doesn’t dispute it. “There’s no recognized Abenaki tribe, or any other tribe in Wells,” Dana said.

Dana moderates a Facebook page Not your Mascot Maine Chapter. There, people can find a wealth of information on the stereotypes associated with Indian mascots and how it affects the tribal culture.

More than 30 Maine schools were once represented by Indian mascots — braves, warriors, Indians, chiefs and redskins. Today, just three high schools remain.

Wells and Nokomis High School of Newport are two that use the Warriors name with Native American imagery. Skowhegan High School decided to retain the Indian mascot and imagery after a contentious discussion in 2015.

In 2014, Wells school officials discussed phasing out the Indian head logo and replacing it with something more appropriate. Daly, who was the principal at WHS at the time, doesn’t have an answer for why that didn’t happen three years ago. The new high school was completed in 2016 with the Indian head appearing in several places.

“There was no resolution. This is what’s before us now, and we are going to take the information to the school board and create a committee that will hear all sides and give a report to the community,” Daly said.

A community decision

Daly emphasized that this isn’t a school board decision, it’s a community decision.

Community members have weighed in on social media and have emailed and spoken with Daly personally, and the response is mixed. Daly said he has heard from some who support the Warrior mascot, and those who want to see it changed.

Andrew Legere is a 1997 Wells High School graduate. While he doesn’t believe that the school was “encouraging racial mockery,” as Tuplin alleged, he feels the Warrior mascot is proving to be offensive, and it’s time for a change.

“I was raised never to be racist and to treat others different from myself with respect. It is difficult to believe that Amelia Tuplin was correct when she says that the school was ‘encouraging this type of racial mockery,’ however by denying that there was any wrongdoing and by failing to apologize, I believe that the school now is encouraging this behavior, Legere said.

[Mother of Mi’kmaq football player says opposing players, fans made racist taunts]

“I believe that the mascot has always been held as a symbol of respect, but if what we thought was meant to be respectful ends up being disrespectful and reinforces stereotypes as we teach our students then it is time for change.”

Harry Tomah, a Maliseet Indian from Houlton, who moved to Wells in 1966 and taught social studies, politics and government at WHS for 37 years, said in all his years living in Wells and working in the school system he has never been made to feel uncomfortable about his Native American heritage — intentionally or unintentionally.

But, he said, “I still think even with all that’s happened, we should drop the Indian mascot. If it bothers a segment of our society then it probably shouldn’t be allowed. Keep the name ‘Warriors.’ Warriors is fine.”

Daly said the district is just beginning the community conversation, and it will be a thorough process.

“We are in the beginning stages, and there are folks on both sides. You’re going to get that, and I completely understand. The piece I want people to know is it’s really a community decision,” he said. “We’ve got a tremendous community, they are second to none, and we have great kids. We are going to take our time and do this right. We are going to take it step by step.”

According to Daly, the issue will be brought up at the next School Board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2.

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