Suzan Shown Harjo still becomes tense when she recalls the only Washington Redskins home game she attended, nearly 40 years ago.
After she moved to Washington, she and her husband were given tickets. Fans sitting nearby, apparently amused that Native Americans were in their midst, pawed their hair and poked them, “not in an unfriendly way, but in a scary way,” Harjo said.
“We didn’t know what was next.”
Harjo and her husband left the game, but they never left Washington. The incident fuelled her opposition to the NFL team’s name and her hope to get the team to change it. Since the 1960s, Harjo has been at the centre of efforts to persuade schools, colleges and professional sports teams to drop Native American names and mascots that some consider derogatory.
The fight has escalated in recent days as groups have intensified lobbying efforts and organized protests, even prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to weigh in.
The debate tends to settle on one question: How many people must be offended by a team’s name for a change to be warranted? The Redskins and the NFL cite polling in which most respondents said they were not offended by the name, while those lobbying the team to drop its name dispute the accuracy of that data and say that, no matter, the word is widely regarded as a slur.
More than two-thirds of the roughly 3,000 teams with native American mascots have dropped them, many voluntarily and without incident. Along the way, Harjo, the director of the Morning Star Institute, a group that promotes Native American causes, became something of a godmother to the cause of eliminating disparaging mascots.
“She has led this fight early,” said Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has paid for advertisements calling on the Redskins to abandon their name. “We stand on her shoulders.”
But Harjo considers her work unfinished because the Redskins and other professional teams have insisted on keeping their names. The Kansas City Chiefs (NFL), as well as the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians (MLB) have also been under scrutiny.
In May, Daniel Snyder, the Redskins owner, echoed his predecessors when he vowed never to change the name. This week, he sent a letter to fans defending his decision to keep the team’s name, saying: “The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour.”
The Redskins, playing in the U.S. capital and the country’s wealthiest league, have remained steadfast as many other teams have changed their nicknames, dating to the 1960s. The Redskins owner at the time, George Preston Marshall, opposed desegregation. Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the team in the 1970s, met with Native Americans to discuss the team’s name, but little followed.
“There are so many milestones in this issue,” Harjo, 68, said Monday at an event held by ChangetheMascot.org, a group urging the Redskins to change their name. “It is king of the mountain because it’s associated with the nation’s capital, so what happens here affects the rest of the country.”
Harjo, Halbritter, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum and others who attended the event said they would continue to call on Snyder and the NFL to change the team’s name. McCollum, via social media and letters, has received the brunt of the backlash from some fans who think the Redskins should hold their ground. (“I’m offended by the name ‘[Minnesota] Vikings’ as I have family from Denmark,” one person wrote on McCollum’s Facebook page, imploring her to “concentrate on a budget and don’t worry about the Washington Redskins.”)
Last week, days before the league’s 32 owners were to meet in Washington, the debate was inflamed when Obama said he would consider changing the name if he owned the team. Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has also called on broadcasters to avoid using the team’s nickname.
In what amounts to a break in the stalemate, Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice-president for labour policy and government affairs, sent a letter last Friday to Peter Carmen, the chief operating officer of the Oneida Indian Nation. Birch suggested they meet before their previously scheduled meeting Nov. 22.
Speaking at the NFL owners meeting on Tuesday, commissioner Roger Goodell reaffirmed his view the Redskins name stands for honour and is not derogatory. “But whenever you have a situation like this, you have to listen and recognize that some people might have different perspectives,” Goodell added.
Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, spent her first 11 years on a farm in an Oklahoma reservation. Her family’s home had no indoor plumbing or electricity, and her idea of wealth was to have ice cubes in her drink, she said.
Harjo’s great-grandfather was Chief Bull Bear, who battled the government over land in the 1800s. As a teenager, she lived with her family in Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed in the U.S. Army.
After returning to the U.S., Harjo moved to New York to work in radio and theatre production. There, she met Frank Ray Harjo and had two children. They worked to promote religious freedom and civil rights and co-produced Seeing Red, a biweekly radio program devoted to Native American news and analysis on WBAI-FM. Harjo also produced hundreds of plays and other programs and helped an improvisational theatrical group.
In 1974, Harjo left for Washington to work as a legislative liaison for two law firms involved in Native American rights. In 1978, then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter appointed her a congressional liaison for aboriginal affairs, which allowed her to help draft legislation to protect native lands and tribal government tax status. She also worked for the National Congress of American Indians.
Harjo has spoken regularly on the issue of team names and held protests, including one at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis in 1992, when the Redskins played the Buffalo Bills. At the time, Stephen R. Baird, a young lawyer who had clerked in federal court in Washington, was preparing a law review article on an obscure part of the Lanham Act that forbids trademarks that disparage people.
“There was really no precedent,” said Baird, who now works for Winthrop & Weinstine in Minneapolis. “So I asked, ‘Why hasn’t anyone challenged them on that basis?’
Baird approached Harjo and in September, 1992, a legal battle began when Harjo et al. v. Pro Football Inc., the corporate name of the Redskins, was filed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. After the three-judge panel agreed to remove the protections, the case was appealed, and a federal judge overturned the decision, saying the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their case, something Harjo and others call a technicality. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
“Those of us who were plaintiffs have passed on, and many of us have become grandfathers and grandmothers, and our hair has turned greyer, and still we haven’t been heard on our merits,” said Manley A. Begay Jr., a plaintiff who teaches at the University of Arizona. Referring to a once-common term for blacks, he added: “After ‘Sambo’ was removed years and years ago, we still have to deal with these mascots.”
To get around the court’s argument too much time had passed, Harjo organized another case with younger Native American plaintiffs. Oral arguments in that case were heard in March and Harjo and others expect a decision perhaps by the end of the year. They are optimistic because, among other things, both sides agreed to recycle the records from the Harjo case as the foundation for this one.
Even if Harjo and her compatriots prevail, Snyder will still be able to use the Redskins name. But the U.S. government would no longer be obliged to protect the team’s trademarks and thus less likely to seize counterfeit goods, a potentially expensive exemption that could hit the team and the league in the pocket.
“You’re not just dealing with the Washington franchise, but the whole of the NFL,” Harjo said. “It’s one monolith after another laden with money and the power it represents.”