Maine Gov. Janet Mills, shown at the April signing ceremony to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Twenty years ago, Maulian Dana was watching a Maine high school basketball game between two teams called the “Indians” and the “Warriors.” Her gaze drifted toward the student sections, where she saw kids chanting and dancing with fake feathers and war paint on their bodies. It was the first time she saw things she knew as “sacred and religious” to thePenobscot Nation being “mocked and degraded.”

Her 15-year-old self was angry and shocked, she said, but she turned her frustration into activism. Today Dana is a tribal ambassador of Penobscot Nation who spearheaded the drafting of a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Janet Mills (D) that prohibits the use of Native American mascots in all public schools, colleges and universities. Maine is the first state to pass such a law.

“It means the world to me and I’m really happy for all the tribal leaders in Maine that came together and all of our allies and friends and Governor Mills,” Dana said in a telephone interview.

The bill, which passed unanimously, will become effective 90 days after the state legislature adjourns.

It prohibits public schools from “having or adopting a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school.”

“While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school’s unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish,” Mills said in a statement. “A mascot is a symbol of pride, but it is not the source of pride. Our people, communities, and understanding and respect for one another are Maine’s source of pride and it is time our symbols reflect that.”

Maine made national headlines in March when the school board in Skowhegan voted to retire the Native American mascot at Skowhegan Area High School after a debate that lasted more than four years. It was the last high school in the state that had a Native American mascot.

There have been recent protests to reinstate the mascot name at Skowhegan, Dana said, but the signing of the ban into law Thursday “seems to have sealed the deal.”

"I think on the federal level something should be done as well,” said Rep. Benjamin Collings (D), who sponsored the bill and advocates for other states to follow Maine’s legislative actions. “In Maine, we just realized that it is a distraction, is harmful and not needed. We wanted to affirm what every town in the state has said so far. It is harmful and there is no place for it.”

Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine, said the publicity surrounding the Skowhegan case, along with a grass roots movement in the state to retire Native American mascots in public schools for about the last two decades, helped lead to passage of the ban. Additionally, in late April, Maine became one of the growing number of states to replace Columbus Day with indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“In terms of how the politics lined up and the makeup of our legislature, it felt like if this was the time,” said Ranco, who has taught about this issue for about 15 years and advised research on the topic. “If we were going to do a law like this, this would be our opportunity. It was a unique set of factors.”

Ranco said a ban was supported by studies and research over the years, such as a 2005 report by the American Psychological Association, which called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities. The report stated: “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students."

“These are actually harmful for Native American children in particular and pretty much harmful to all children how they misrepresent a whole group of people in society,” Ranco said in a telephone interview. “In Maine, Maine has been one of the states that native people here have been active in pursuing this kind of outcome in terms of the public education side of it.”

Ranco and Dana are hopeful that the bill passed in Maine will spark more activism in other states, with the potential for other legislation banning Native American mascots. Several states have similar restrictions, while others have called for the end of the use of mascots.

“When I was a teenager I got laughed out of a lot of rooms, I got booed by other high schoolers,” Dana said. “So if you were to tell me back then that someday I would be standing in the statehouse while the governor signed a law just saying these mascots would not be used anymore, it would have been incredibly reassuring, but I wouldn’t have believed you. We’ve definitely come a long way.”

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