Independent film: Wells High grads document controversial mascot debate


With Atlanta’s Major League Baseball team winning the World Series last week, the uncomfortable question of cultural appropriation in Native American imagery returned to the conversation. By what, of course, I mean a whole bunch of defensive white defensive fans who are loudly claiming the right not only to support a team still called ‘the Braves’, but to don dime approximations of stereotypical native clothing. and join us. defiantly performing a hand gesture called the (deep sigh) “chop tomahawk”.

To those offended by their continued use of increasingly offensive terms and tropes, some fans angrily respond that it is all tradition, that they are in fact honoring Native Americans, and that everyone is. just too sensitive and “politically correct.” As mentioned, the resulting debate usually gets pretty ugly after that, since it is about America in 2021.

But what happens when a small town in Maine faces the exact same problem as its nationally controversial high school sports mascot? This is the subject of “We Are The Warriors,” the upcoming documentary by Maine filmmakers David Camlin and Megan Grumbling (editor of the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram’s Deep Water poetry column), examining how their Wells hometown addressed the issue once its own Native American mascot became the subject of heated debate.

Wells High School is the alma mater of filmmakers David Camlin and Megan Grumbling.

“We were Wells Warriors,” Camlin explains of his and Grumbling’s time as Wells High students in the mid-90s. “We were both in the marching band and went to every football game. and grew up under the mascot and imagery. ” As Camlin asserts, the Wells logo (a feathered Native American warrior) was simply something most Wells residents took for granted, though concerns about racial insensitivity were raised (and dismissed) from time to time. (Including longtime retired Wells and Native American football coach Harry Tomah.)

That all changed in 2017, as documented in “We Are The Warriors,” when a visiting parent of Aboriginal descent objected to her son playing a game amid all the Native American imagery from Wells’ side. . The story has become a flashpoint, with a Press Herald Editorial by Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana on the incident making Wells the focal point of the national debate over Indigenous team names. For Camlin and Grumbling, the intimate controversy crystallized their concerns not only about the lingering debate over cultural appropriation, but how we, as a nation, have become increasingly incapable of discussing such matters without resentment. ingrained and abusive.

“Seeing the trend we’ve been on, especially after the 2016 presidential election, to politicize news, Megan and I saw Wells’ story as an example that could, perhaps, thwart that momentum,” Camlin said. “In the way Wells handled it, we saw that it could be a story that sets an example – a willingness to pump the brakes, slow down, listen to others, not just appease others. so that they leave you alone, but really think about it and have that factor in your decision making.

“We Are The Warriors,” which is now in post-production for a public television release in March 2022, indeed shows that things in Wells could have started predictably, but also how a town in Maine gradually – and, for some, painfully – found a more productive compromise. (Wells’ teams are still the Warriors, but devoid of any Indigenous association.) In Grumbling and Camlin’s admirably balanced film, everyone is allowed to express themselves, appropriately enough, with the predominantly white population of the city ​​(including Wells High school administrators, coaches and parents) initially expressed outrage at being seen as racist for their city’s decades-long traditions.

Watching the movie, one might raise an eyebrow here. The spectacle of white Americans complaining that the media is portraying them as superficial and devoid of any context is quite ironic, given – a fact Camlin hopes the film brings home. “Watching the people of Wells say, ‘It’s not really us, it’s not fair’, it’s seeing them go all the way, but not take the last step towards self-awareness,” he said. Camlin said. “With a little more thought, they could make that connection with the mascot and with what the natives are saying about it. “

Still, “We Are The Warriors” shows how the (again, all-white) committee formed to resolve the issue took grudging but laudable steps to get the big picture. The parent who filed the complaint spoke to the group, alongside a group of Native Americans arguing for the removal of the mascot. Camlin, from Wells, explained the committee’s efforts: “It’s hard for people to get over the idea that Indians were here, and now they’re just gone. But it gets really hard to keep talking about native people in the past tense when they are sitting across from you.

A photo from “We are the Warriors”, which is in post-production.

There are dissenters, participants in a public forum on the mascot issue, essentially complaining that outside troublemakers are the real problem, and brandishing the supposed acquiescence of the town’s own indigenous citizens as evidence. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves the daughter of a well-known local Indigenous business owner, debunking the widely held notion that her late father supported the Warriors mascot, citing fears for his economic well-being. if he said what he thought. As Camlin notes, such uncomfortable truths have always been the rallying cry of white America.

“It’s not just the native mascots. Half the country, say, are people who are really concerned with hanging on to what they think they’ve left behind. They feel like they have let go of their ideals and ways of thinking about themselves, and being challenged in this way leads to a lot of pressure points at once. Indeed, one administrator towards the end of the film claims that she only voted for possible changes in a timid deference to changing public opinion, ominously warning the people of Skowhegan (the one of the only other towns in Maine with an aboriginal mascot at the time), “They’re coming for you next.” (Skowhegan changed her mascot from “Indians” to “River Hawks” in 2020, and Governor of Maine. Janet Mills signed a statewide ban on Native mascots.)

For filmmakers Camlin and Grumbling, coming home meant confronting their own past, as well as that of their city. “We kind of took advantage of alumni status,” Camlin explained. “The people we went to high school with are now administrators, teachers and parents, and while a lot of people were initially reluctant to speak to a film crew after the press had – as they saw – Descended on them, we had a personal head start to gain their trust.

“We Are The Warriors” is currently in the very important post-production phase, but viewers can get a glimpse of the work in progress on the film’s website from November 19-20 and November 26-27. While Grumbling and Camlin paid for their production out of pocket (and with some support from the Documentary Educational Resources organization), Camlin is hoping Mainers will help increase the final costs for, among other things, a truly impressive score. “We could just use documentary music, but we hired Mali Obomsawin from the group Lula Wiles, which brings together an ensemble of Wabanaki musicians to record a soundtrack. “

I urge readers to check out “We Are The Warriors” (and help fund its completion). As Camlin says of his hometown approach to a thorny issue, “When people are at least ready to sit at the table, it’s not too far to see things from the point of view. view of someone else. “

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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