How Native American Women Fought a Racist NFL Team Trademark … and Won

3 years ago

"I'm not alone on these mascots being wrong. Native Americans are fighting the mascot in Washington D.C. so we don't have to deal with them anymore. The team in D.C. is not gonna be the R-word forever, and you will regret ever thinking that their name was okay."

That is what I said to classmates when I was in middle school and high school. Thanks to the original and current plaintiffs in the recently won trademark cancellation ruling against the Washington "Redskins" NFL team, my long-held opinion is quickly becoming fact. The case was originally filed in 1992 by Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who is now a 69-year-old grandmother.

Suzan Shown Harjo. Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to Business Insider:

"Though she was initially victorious in 1999, the Redskins appealed in federal district court and eventually won, due to something Harjo termed a "technicality": the federal judge ruled Harjo was too old to be the plaintiff and should have brought the case closer to her 18th birthday

Like me and many other young Natives, Harjo had an activist she admired when she was a young student: Clyde Warrior. Indian Country is small, and many of our household names never make the water cooler at work. Natives get well known for many reasons; most of them don't end well for the Native person. One thing those Natives have in common is that they resist. Resistance is the only way we survived the genocide and culture stripping that happened during centuries of bad U.S. government policies and societal norms. Maybe an elder wasn't able to pass on the language, but passed on how to dance or how important certain cultural objects are. If one strategy failed, we learn from it, and succeed the next time. That is what we have always done as Native Americans.

Like Clyde Warrior, who resisted injustice, Suzan Harjo resisted failing—and she helped organize other young Natives who would go on to win a landmark trademark case. Years later, in 2013, other Native American women—like me, Jackie Keeler, Maggie Hundley, and Johnnie Jae—would organize too using a different strategy. We would take our case to the heart of Americans on the Internet with a group called Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM) All of our paths would cross, but none of us knew it yet.

The American Psychological Association (APA) had been busy for years, too, trying to address the ever-skyrocketing number of suicides among Native Americans, especially among Native American youth. As Jake Martus of the Alaskan Native Epidemiology Center, told NBC News:

“They set us up to kill ourselves," he said. "The point of all the policies was ‘take them out.’”

Talking with us, researchers and journalists found out something else: our troubled history with mascots, especially the ones that refer to the bloody bounty placed on Native Americans. The APA made a resolution against "Indian mascots" in 2005. That same year, the younger plaintiffs organized by Harjo launched a new suit against the Washington team, with Amanda Blackhorse as the main plaintiff. That same year, I was calling angered radio station hosts and talking to them about why the new and just NCAA policy calling for dissolution of derogatory "Indian mascots" was nothing new ... and was desperately needed.  

I wrote to a local high school a few years ago. My cousin went there as a child, and the mascot was just like the one in D.C.—same name, same cultural appropriation, and same redface at games. I attended a fall festival with her once, and I was mortified.

"How can you stand it?" I asked her later.

"I just deal with it," she said.

Lots of things are slow to change for Natives, and we are faced with three choices to survive: embrace it, deal with it, or fight it. In 2011, I wrote to the school board there, and shared my painful stories. I asked them to look at the research and all the groups asking for them to change the mascot. In an email response, I was told:

"Union is not violating any federal or state law. In fact, the only legal ruling dealing with the use of the term 'Redskins' upheld the rights of the Washington Redskins to use that term for their mascot, and the court found that the term 'Redskins' is not derogatory."

—Ed L Payton, COO and General Counsel Celebrity Attractions & Union High School Tulsa School Board Member

I knew from that moment on that if I wanted to fix mascots—and everything that went with them, for my local youth—the country's most notorious and derogatory mascot, the one in our nation's capital, would need to be fixed first. The first place I went to reach the people in D.C. was my computer. I started writing, calling, and beginning online petitions. A few years later, I met Jackie Keeler online, along with so many other strong Native American women. Jackie collaborated with me and others. She wanted to implement her idea of a new way for Native Americans to collaborate online like we do in our communities, so we could impact the negative mascots. She even came up with a better term for us to use to encompass all the racism we have been effected by—Native Mascotry: the use, misuse, exploitation, and misappropriation of Native American culture, regalia, and language in team names, logos, and actions, including but not limited to clowning, offensive stereotyping, degrading behaviors, and “redface” at sporting games and other events.

In the earliest days of EONM, when we were less than a handful of members, Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse immediately became supportive of the strategy we had taken. Jackie had met Suzan while attending Dartmouth, and before we launched #NotYourMascot during the last Super Bowl, we got support and approval from Suzan and Amanda. We all felt that was important to reach out to them, and found them warmly welcoming to what we had in mind.

The resistance I see among all the Native women I know has truly inspired me. None of us is willing to "go away" until the problem with this brand of institutionalized racism is gone. None of us in this new generation really recognized how much and how far the strength of our Native voices had carried us. We were just too busy doing what we felt had to be done—not just for the betterment of Native Americans, but for the betterment of all Americans.

In this homeland of many communities, it will always been important that a certain amount of dignity, free from prejudices of all sorts, is supported by other groups of people. Although there is still a long way to go, nothing will ever make me feel more hopeful than the joyful congratulations I sent to Suzan and Amanda. Nothing will make me feel more humble than just having had the opportunity to personally be able to speak with all these great Native American women.

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