In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, Skowhegan Area High School cheerleaders stand beneath a mural of the school's mascot on the wall of the gymnasium in Skowhegan, Maine. The last Maine high school to use an "Indian" nickname is retiring the mascot. The Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 Board of Directors voted 14-9 Thursday, March 7, 2019, to get rid of the nickname for all schools in the district, ending a years-long debate over the Skowhegan Area High School mascot. Credit: Michael G. Seamans | Portland Press Herald | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature took a first step on Tuesday toward banning the use of Native American names, imagery and mascots in Maine public schools amid a long-standing controversy over the Skowhegan “Indians” nickname.

The bill from Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, is aimed at Skowhegan, the last Maine high school to maintain Native American imagery relating to a mascot. After years of debate, the school board voted last month to get rid of it, though the district could hold a non-binding referendum to restore “Indians” as school team names and the mascot.

Collings’ proposal passed largely along party lines on Tuesday in a 88-49 vote in the Democratic-led House and it faces further action in both chambers. The bill would keep public schools and higher education institutions from having names, symbols or images referring to Native Americans used as a mascot, team nickname or logo of the school.

The vote came immediately after an impassioned speech by Rena Newell, a non-voting tribal representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe from Pleasant Point, who said “I am not a mascot” after questioning why the matter was up for debate.

“It is our collective responsibility to the next generations to promote each other as equals, as individuals, and more importantly, as neighbors,” she said.

More than 30 Maine schools once had team nicknames that referenced Native Americans, but many of them have been changed since the turn of the century. Others — such as Nokomis High School of Newport, Wells High School and Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook — have stripped their “Warriors” nickname of Native American imagery.

Skowhegan’s name has lived on in the face of a debate led by members of the Penobscot Nation. Maulian Dana, the tribe’s ambassador, said in March testimony on the bill that the use of such mascots “is harmful and adds to the intergenerational trauma of indigenous people.”

The only two Republicans to vote for the bill were Reps. Tom Martin of Greene, who is married to a Passamaquoddy woman and spoke in favor of the bill, and Patrick Corey of Windham. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, released a March guidance urging schools to “refrain” from using mascots and logos depicting Native American tribes and customs.

However, the Maine Department of Education stopped short of backing Collings’ proposed statewide ban in March testimony in a nod to local control. Supporters of the Indians name made that same argument in testimony on the bill then and their arguments were amplified by local lawmakers on the House floor on Tuesday.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, called it “suppression of free speech.” Rep. Betty Austin, D-Skowhegan, the only Democrat to oppose the bill, said it was “directly targeted” at her town.

“The mascot debate is a local issue and it should remain up to our school board and district to decide what to do,” Austin said. “This bill only divides our community further at a time when our focus should be on coming together and healing.”

BDN writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...