Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Indian Mascots: Maine and the Wabanaki

On February 21st, the Atlantic Black Box (ABB) hosted an online film screening of “Fighting Indians” followed by a conversation with filmmakers Mark Cooley and Derek Ellis and Passamaquoddy language-keeper Dwayne Tomah. According to its website, a “grassroots historical recovery project that empowers communities throughout New England to research, reveal and  begin reckoning with the region’s complicity in the slave trade and the global economy of enslavement while recentering the stories of its Black and Indigenous communities.”

The presentation drew over 250 people which I consider to be a lot. A few days later there was a follow-up conversation which drew 30 people. We divided into 5 groups of six with half my group being from outside Maine.

The impetus for the movie was the decision by the State of Maine passing on May 16th, 2019, An Act to Ban Native American Mascots in All Public Schools, which ABB claims was the first legislation of its kind in the country.

The film “Fighting Indians” chronicles the last and most contentious holdout in that struggle, the homogeneously white Skowhegan High School, known for decades as “The Home of the Indians.” This is the story of a small New England community forced to reckon with its identity, its sordid history, and future relationship with its Indigenous neighbors. It is the story of a small town divided against the backdrop of a nation divided, where the “mascot debate” exposes centuries-old abuses while asking if reconciliation is possible. (ABB)

The framework for the movie was a series of school board meetings, sometimes contentious, where the school board gradually shifted from maintaining the Indian mascot to removing it. The film included the board meetings themselves, interviews particularly with some Wabanaki, historical textual screens about horrific events in colonial times, the Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bill, Indian boarding schools, and a local baseball player Louis Sockalexis who preceded Jackie Robinson by decades and caused the Cleveland baseball team in 1915 to name itself “Indians” in his honor.

The sentiments of the filmmakers were evident throughout.

Here are my thoughts about the film.


Friday Night Lights is a book, movie, and TV series about the place of high school football in a fictional town in Texas (but based on a real one). While its ratings weren’t high, Friday Night Lights became part of American vocabulary for evoking the significance and importance of small-town football in the identity of a community. Part of its appeal was it showcasing its place as part of the very fabric of the community.

Election Results: Amazon versus Hallmark November 27, 2018

Friday Night Lights: Risking Lives for the Dow May 21, 2020

I didn’t get the sense from the filmmakers that they appreciated the role of Friday Night Lights in small-community America. Rather it was somewhat derisive of the Americans with their century old traditions about the high school.


By contrast the Wabanaki claim of having been in the area for 10,000 years was accepted on face value. For me the claims of having been in the land for 10,000 years demands the same scrutiny as does any other such claims. I do not know if there has been any archaeological work involving Paleoindians in Maine but if there has been it should have been mentioned in the film. In addition, if such people have been discovered, then one would need to substantiate a link between those people thousands of years ago and the Wabanaki today.

Such considerations also lead to the question of the Wabanaki historical legacy. At what point did they start to refer to themselves as having been in the land for 10,000 years. If one were to examine the records from colonial times, would one find reference to a Wabanaki claim to having been in the land for 10,000 years? Was such a claim made in the 17th century? Was such a claim made in the 18th century? Was such a claim made in the 19th century? How about the 20th? It seems to be that the Wabanaki learned this number from Americans and incorporated it into their own heritage stories.


According to the Wabanaki website:

The Wabanaki Confederacy, translated to “People of the Dawn,” was unified in 1606. The confederation was comprised of the principal nations, Abenaki, Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. At the time these tribes came from present day Maine and eastern Canada. of the territory that would become Maine in 1820 and eastern Canadian tribes. 

The Wabanaki Confederacy played a key role in supporting the colonials of the American Revolution against King George. The Treaty of Watertown of 1776 formalized the relationship. The Treaty was signed by the Micmac and Passamaquoddy tribes, two of the Wabanaki Confederacy’s members. General George Washington expressed his appreciation for the alliance in a letter.

Despite the tribes’ support of the colonials the favor of support was not returned after the war. During the time of the Wabanaki Confederacy (1606-1862) and beyond the Wabanaki people were radically decimated due to many decades of warfare, but also because of famines and devastating epidemics of infectious disease. 

This information was not in the film, only the atrocities were. But consider this passage from a book review of Andrea Smalley of Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast by Thomas Wickman (American Historical Review April 2020):

In the First Anglo-Wabanaki War of 1675-1678…the English carried out a preemptive early winter massacre against the Narragansetts, signaling a frightening departure from their previous military tactics. The initial success of [the] colonists’ wintertime attack, however was answered in resounding fashion in both the First and Second Anglo-Wabanaki Wars. Indians employed a brutal attritional winter strategy against the colonists, taking captives, killing livestock, and burning buildings…. Wabanaki independence and autonomy remained generally unscathed throughout the seventeenth century, in large part due to their continued wintertime mobility.

Eventually, the colonists learned the ways of the snowshoe that provided the Wabanaki an edge. They then turned the weapon against the Wabanaki. “English settlers erased from memory the decades-long context for winter power, along with the Native Americans who had once skillfully wielded it.”

It would seem between the snowshoe and the baseball glove/bat, it should be possible to create a better logo in the event one wanted that draws from local history.

According to an article in my local newspaper in New York on October, 12, 2022, most schools in Maine fall short on teaching Wabanaki history. The study by the Maine Department of Education reported that the decades-old law requiring such teaching in the ten school districts was not being fulfilled. The Main Indian Tribal State Commission joined in the report.


In the Q&A following the screening of the film, I asked about education. I was told that the curriculum is under development. The article from October 2022 gave the same answer I heard in February 2023. What happens when it finally is developed remains to be seen. Will it be integral to the existing curriculum or stand-alone modules that teachers may or may not teach? Will the Wabanaki be treated as separate from American history or as part of American history? Decisions on what to teach in the classroom are made locally in Maine. The state provides resources on its website. I didn’t see anything about the training of teachers once the curriculum is created.

A bigger question is the reconciliation between competing views. During the Q&A and in the breakout session a few days later, I heard mention of civil discourse and of the need to practice when the community is so divided. Such conversations and dialog were considered essential to healing the divide which existed. Did the film contribute to the “reconciliation” ABB mentioned above asking if it is possible.

In this blog I have referred to the film as a “film” and not a “documentary.’ That choice was deliberate. I characterize it as a sermon. My guess based on my limited contact with the audience is that the film was preaching to the choir. It was not an attempt to reach across the aisle or to engage people with the opposite point of view. It evinced no attempt at reconciliation. That would require a different film than the one I saw.

Local Slavery: What Some History Organizations Are Doing

While the myth of no slavery in the North dies a slow and deserved death, many historical organizations are working to make their local story of the past more complete. This blog presents some current actions underway. It is not a complete survey. It includes items which I became aware of through newsletters, blogs, and notices which have been sent to me.

These examples are from:

Baltimore, MD
Connecticut River Valley (mainly MA) – a regional approach
Greenwich, CT
Florence, MA
Irvington, NY.

Combined they reveal a range of possible actions that can be taken or one you can join if you are in Connecticut River Valley or perhaps replicate in another region.


Slave Streets, Free Streets and the Landscape of Early Baltimore” is an article written by Anne Sarah Rubin, history professor.

Imagine strolling through Baltimore 200 years ago. The narrow, unpaved streets lead you past public markets and taverns, grand mansions, and tiny alley houses. The Federal Hill observatory towers over the harbor, its shipyards, and its wharves. As you leave the tightly packed streets near the water, the houses become farther apart, interspersed with the jail, a hospital, a seminary, an almshouse, long ropewalks. You pass fields and gardens, patches of forest and orchards. The virtual landscape in which you are immersed—because, of course, you have not traveled back in time—is beautifully textured and lavishly detailed, a Google Street View for the past. 

This view from Slave Streets, Free Streets shows Don Carlos Hall’s route from his shop on Baltimore Street to his manufactory, to his home, and then to Bethel AME Church.  Courtesy Lee Boot

The digital world was created Visualizing Early Baltimore, a collaboration between the Maryland Historical Society and the Imaging Research Center (IRC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) to build an accurate 3D model of the city and its terrain, land use, and buildings circa 1820. Sarah Rubin later joined.

I became involved in the project in 2014, when Dan Bailey showed it to me, and I was so enchanted that I insisted he include me in future collaborations. What I saw was, in Dan’s words, “a beautiful stage set.” But there were no people on the streets, no context describing early-Republic Baltimore in all its vibrant, problematic complexity, as described by historians like Martha Jones, Christopher Phillips, and Seth Rockman. There was no sign of the new immigrants from Europe and relocated country folk pouring into the city. The enslaved people who worked alongside free blacks and whites in the city’s shipyards and construction sites were similarly absent. 

To read about how she brought the map to life, go to Slave Streets, Free Streets and the Landscape of Early Baltimore.”

Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley

I became aware of this project when attending the online annual conference of the Massachusetts History Alliance last month. During a session, Marla Miller made a comment in the chat about this project. If you have excellent memory, you may recall she was one of the authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, an NPS-commissioned study that I wrote a series of blogs about in 2017.

The webpage of this new project states:

Welcome to the webpage for Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley. This community-based research project in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties aims to document the lives of free, enslaved, and formerly enslaved Black residents of the Connecticut River Valley prior to 1900. Participating historical organizations, in collaboration with student and volunteer researchers, will perform a “deep dive” into their relevant holdings and present their findings in a fall capstone event.

Participating organizations include the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, Belchertown Historical Association, the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground RR Studies, Forbes Library, the Historical Society of Greenfield, Historic Northampton, the Longmeadow Historical Society, and the Wood Museum of Springfield History.

This project launches on Juneteenth 2021 with a major public event, featuring noted scholars of Black history in Western Massachusetts, including a keynote by Whitney Battle-Baptiste. The first phase of this project will conclude on October 3rd, 2021, with a capstone event that reports out results and begins a conversation about Valley-wide initiatives to continue this work in the future. 

As you can see, the project is very new with the launch scheduled for June 19, 2021. Unfortunately, due to a local Juneteenth program where I live, I was unable to participate in this online launch save for the last five minutes. That was enough time to ask in the chat if the program was recorded which it was (although not yet available). So if you are in the Connecticut Valley, please take this opportunity to participate. If you are in another region, please consider replicating and partnering with this group. One should notice the importance of college involvement in this undertaking.


At the Massachusetts History Alliance conference in June, Meadow Dibble, the founding Director of Atlantic Black Box, and Tom Goldscheider, a public historian, made a joint presentation on slavery in Massachusetts projects. Dibble’s interest was piqued when she happen to notice while walking through a local cemetery a death in Africa. It made her wonder about involvement in slave trade of local Cape Cod people. She knew that Massachusetts legalized slavery in 1641, but she had questions about the colony’s and state’s involvement.

1. when did Massachusetts begin participating in the slave trade?
2. when did Massachusetts stop participating in the slave trade?
3. how many vessels participated in the slave trade?
4. how many people were captive in the slave trade?

Answers were not readily available. Dibble concluded that Massachusetts and New England in general have not been discussing its extensive and longstanding investment in the Atlantic slave economy. New Englanders don’t know their own history.

People now are awakening to the notion that past is present and we have to deal with our past actions. Massachusetts and New England do not have the plantations and statues to the racist past and the people frequently are oblivious to the region’s own racist past in the stories we tell in our dominant narrative that we whites in the north were on the right side of history. She then challenged the participants to ask the following questions in their own community:

1. when did slavery begin?
2. when did slavery end?
3. how many people were enslaved in your community? In your state?
4. what work did they do?
5. what was their experience like?
6. who were the enslaved people in your community?
7. how did they resist slavery?
8. how did your community vote in 1860?

Although not stated, here is a potential template for the Connecticut Valley effort noted above. I suggested to Dibble that this subject was be good for a presentation at a social studies conference.

Goldscheider then applied these questions to the small village of Florence, MA. He commented on its abolitionist founding but that abolitionists were not necessarily regarded as heroes back then. He noted one important difference with the South: the freedom of speech and the press for abolitionists in the North. He cautioned that the high-school curriculum here is designed for teaching abolitionist history and that teachers should not frontload their politics. In Florence, 11 case studies were prepared including a packet of source materials and places in the community to walk to see where these people lived. The intention is to provide the students with the necessary information so they can formulate their own opinions. Massachusetts has a new civics program and Goldscheider wondered how it will apply.

In the Q&A, there were questions about how to do this in their own communities particularly if not an abolitionist-founded one like Florence. One guiding words of wisdom were not to finger point if you want community support.

Greenwich, CT.

Hester Mead Home


Greenwich Historical Society hosted a ceremony on May 27th to honor the legacy of enslaved persons who resided in Greenwich. Four individuals were honored with a “Witness Stones Memorial” engraved with their name, known birth and death dates and primary occupations. The stones were placed on the grounds near Bush-Holley House where they resided. The intention is to expand recognition to include other people as more research is conducted.

The Historical Society collaborated with The Witness Stones Project on this initiative. It seeks to teach school-age children about enslaved persons in their hometowns using primary sources like deeds, wills and letters. Students and teachers from Sacred Heart and Greenwich Academy were partners in the program. They worked with the support of the Historical Society in researching the daily lives of the enslaved. The ceremony marked the culmination of their work over the past 18 months.

The quotations in the article express that the experience was a learning one for the historical society, the teachers, the students, and the government officials who participated in the ceremony. To read the article click here

Irvington, NY

The name of the organization created by Cathy Sears and Sarah Cox with the Irvington Historical Society is “Commemorate.”  They are creating a memorial garden to mark the putative site of a newly rediscovered enslaved African burial ground. Artwork by renowned sculptor Vinny Bagwell to honor this legacy will join the pantheon of Irvington’s historic monuments in a place of honor on Main Street. A second tribute-a memorial garden, benches, and plaque by the Hudson River-will honor the area where an enslaved African burial ground was once located.

Enslaved African Burial Ground
on South Buckhout Street

The proposed design for the Commemorating Enslaved Africans in Irvington Memorial Project was unveiled by Bagwell at Irvington’s Juneteenth Celebration Rally on Saturday, June 19th, at the Main Street School. The title, “Yesterday,” evokes the notion that while slavery ended nearly 200 years ago, the myriad legacies of slavery persist and are as close to the present moment as yesterday. Civic engagement, education, and student-led tours are key parts of the proposal that Commemorate made to the Irvington school district.

These two commemorative projects are the result of years of research, a journal article, and several presentations by lead researcher and freelance journalist, Cathy Sears and Sarah Cox. To learn more about our research into the history of slavery in Irvington, read the article in the Irvington Historical Society’s Winter 2019 issue of The Roost, “Our Town & Slavery”. Click here Proposal to Irvington school district to see the Commemorate slideshow presented this last winter to the school district. Click here for more information regarding the Enslaved African Burial Ground.

As you can see from this brief list, there is a lot going on tell the story of slavery in the North. Local history frequently is overlooked and ignored in the school curriculum today. Teacher training in that subject similarly is minimal. Perhaps with the American Revolution 250th and the investigations into both slavery in the North and the involvement of Northerners in slavery in the South, local history including field trips will become an integral part of the k-12 curriculum.