A still from the documentary film "We Are the Warriors" shows Harry Tomah, a former coach and teacher at Wells High School for 37 years, standing in the school's basketball gym in 2018. Credit: Courtesy of David Camlin

Until a few years ago, residents of the southern Maine town of Wells had commonly used a mascot depicting an offensive stereotype of Indigenous people for decades. Then something happened that prompted them to retire it for good.

The inciting incident occurred in October 2017, when a Lisbon woman and mother of a visiting high school football team’s quarterback called behavior she witnessed at a game in Wells “the most ultimate display of racism” she had ever seen.

“Your team, students and spectators mocked our families’ heritage, including my son, quarterback Lucas Francis, by painting their faces, banging on fake drums that included 5-gallon buckets, singing mock chants, performing mock dances, and continuously making hand-over-mouth sounds,” wrote Amelia Tuplin in a letter to the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District superintendent.

Tuplin is full-blooded Mi’kmaq, from the Abegweit First Nations people of the Wabanaki confederacy.

A new Maine-made film picks up the story right there. The hour-long documentary, “We are the Warriors,” captures residents of the small Maine town publicly grappling with accusations of racism and the impact of harm caused by their longstanding depictions of Indigenous people in their town mascots.

The film centers the progress of the town’s mascot advisory committee, a volunteer group of 26 current and former teachers, students, coaches, parents and administrators who were assembled after Tuplin’s letter. The committee invited several members of Maine’s tribal communities to offer perspective on the situation.

The nearly completed film is the work of David Camlin and Megan Grumbling, who began production in 2017. Camlin and Grumbling graduated from Wells High School in the 1990s, and leaned on old friendships and contacts with the school and community members for access into a fraught public discussion. 

“A lot of people were invested in the process and willing to have their beliefs and traditions challenged in a pretty significant way,” Camlin said.

Maine became the first state in the United States to ban the use of Native American mascots in public schools, passing a state law in 2019. The town of Skowhegan was the last to make the switch, voting in October of 2020 to change their mascot from the “Indians” to the River Hawks.

When it comes to retiring the use of racist depictions of Indigenous people in sports teams, Maine is surely ahead of the curve. Many U.S. towns and cities still use depictions of native people in mascots and other iconography, and lawmakers in Utah, Colorado and other states have recently looked to pass similar legislation banning the offensive imagery in public schools.

National sports franchises are also beginning to make changes. Washington’s football team retired the “Redskins” moniker in 2019, and Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team will be known as the Guardians, not the “Indians,” next year. The Atlanta Braves recent World Series victory cast light on the team’s fans’ behavior, which includes a chant-and-gesture called the “tomahawk chop” that is broadly seen as racist by Indigenous people.

Wells High School has used “The Warrior” — with a Native American wearing a feathered headdress — as its mascot in some form since the late 1940s. The rendering is meant to derive, according to Wells historians, from the Abenaki, the tribal communities displaced from what is now southern Maine during the expansion of English settlement from Boston. The mascot advisory committee decided in February 2018 to keep the Warrior name but do away with all associated references to Native American imagery, led by Superintendent Jim Daly and football coach Tim Roche.

Some Wells residents interviewed in the film said they grew up seeing the mascot as a way of remembering or honoring Indigenous people. That describes Roche, who discussed in interviews with the filmmakers how the public process helped evolve his perspective.

“I think our alumni are attached to the warrior head because of what we thought it might represent,” Roche said. “I think everybody thought we were honoring the Native Americans — and I really think with great intentions.”

But as the film captures, the public process of hearing accounts from tribal members swayed the opinions of many who had originally supported keeping the mascot.

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador and one of several Indigenous Mainers in the film, said that while this line of reasoning is common, it’s wrong because it relies on depictions that are inaccurate and frozen in time.

“We’re still here,” Dana said in the film. “We’re not something to be thought about in history books.”  

The problem, according to Dana, with using mascots and other stereotypes of native people is that non-Natives shouldn’t be the ones to decide how to represent people they know very little about. When kids, Native or otherwise, only see representations of Indigenous people through stereotypes and other racist depictions, they learn that “Native Americans aren’t people; that they’re mascots,” and “there’s no honor in that.”

Camlin and Grumbling had a lot of help making the film. The Wells graduates, both white, enlisted a team of producers and editors that include Joanna Weaver, Sierra Henries and Mali Obomsawin of the Sunlight Media Collective, a media group formed by Wabanaki peoples in the Penobscot region.

The filmmakers are screening work-in-progress cuts of the film the next two weekends and are soliciting donations through their fiscal sponsor, the Massachusetts-based Documentary Educational Resources. They plan to add a sound designer and an ensemble of Wabanaki musicians to the final mix and hope to circulate the film in public broadcast channels next year.  

The hope is to inspire communities to take a similar approach that Wells did, which, as Camlin puts it, is to “really make an effort to understand why native people want these mascots to be retired.”

“Maine’s gone through the process,” he said. “It’s time to take that example and make it available to other communities across the country.”