Metro

Maine group apologizes for ‘Hunt for the Indian’ event meant to promote local businesses

A business group in Maine has apologized and scrapped plans for a promotional holiday shopping event called “Hunt for the Indian” following backlash from the community.

The Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, in Skowhegan, a town about two hours north of Portland, was set to launch the scavenger hunt-like game, which would have encouraged participants to track down a Native American figurine hidden inside local shops to earn holiday discounts, starting after Thanksgiving.

In a post on Facebook Sunday, members of the chamber said the aim was to support business owners while engaging residents in the area and said it was not their “intention to offend anyone.”

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“Never were we so wrong in thinking that this latest promotion involving the Chamber’s Skowhegan Indian statue would be a good idea,” the group said in a statement. “No apology can take away our lack of empathy and foresight in this decision. And, for that we are truly sorry.”

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According to event details forwarded by the chamber to the Globe, the group was looking for at least 31 businesses to participate in the ill-conceived game. Verbal clues about the figure’s whereabouts were to be posted to Facebook daily through Dec. 30. If a customer visited the business hiding the figurine, and found it, that person would receive a small discount — between 5 percent and 20 percent — on items purchased. The figurine would then be moved to a new store the next day.

When news about the holiday promotion made its way around social media, the reaction was swift.

“The use of the ‘Indian’ and the horrific game of ‘Hunt the Indian’ goes beyond cultural appropriation and is just violently racist, plain and simple,” one person wrote on the chamber’s Facebook page.

Jason Gayne, the chamber’s executive director, said in a telephone interview that the group wanted to celebrate the town’s heritage and that the nine-member board that came up with the event “didn’t mean any harm by it, by any means.”

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“We canceled it completely,” he said.

Gayne said as a result of the public outcry, the chamber will host one or more community discussions addressing the town’s history, Native American history, and “the culture of our area.”

Skowhegan is home to a large Native American statue called the “Skowhegan Indian monument,” a 62-foot-tall wooden figure built by Maine artist Bernard Langlais and dedicated to “the Maine Indians.” The figurine that was going to be used for the giveaway is a miniature version of that statue.

In its statement on Facebook over the weekend, the chamber said it understood it “created a bigger problem” when it failed to see what the promotional event looked like from an outside perspective, especially given local and national protests in recent years calling for a ban on sports mascots with Native American themes.

In 2015, several groups, including the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, asked school officials in Skowhegan to stop using “Indians” as a name and logo for the town’s high school sports teams, according to the Associated Press.The district’s school board later voted to keep the name, the Bangor Daily News reported.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.