The Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell reports that the National Park Service will not allow the Washington Redskins to build a new stadium in D.C. if it insists on keeping its current name. The Redskins currently play in FedEx Field, which is in Prince George’s County, but D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has been lobbying to have the team return to the city itself by building a new facility where Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium currently stands. That land, however, is owned by the National Park Service.
“Suzan has been fighting this since 1992. Native American people have been fighting this since 1972. … The reason it has come up recently is because Suzan has worked really hard to bring this in the public eye,” Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five Native American plaintiffs in the case filed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, told Business Insider.
“She’s just a tremendous woman. She’s a strong Native American woman, and I’m so happy to have met her and to have been a part of all this because this is what we need to do,” Blackhorse added.
Harjo was born in Oklahoma and is of Cheyenne and Muscogee ancestry. In a conversation with Business Insider shortly after the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office’s decision was announced, Harjo said she became involved with political activism while she was still in school.
“One time when I was in school, I was selected by our Cheyenne leadership to come to Washington with them. And when my family asked, ‘Why do you want her to go?’ They said, 'Because she talks good and she ain’t afraid of nobody.’ So, those became resumé items,” Harjo recounted.
In high school, Harjo was inspired to fight against what she describes as “racist stereotypes in American sports” because of an Oklahoma Native American activist named Clyde Warrior.
“He made a personal cause of getting rid of the mascot 'Little Red’ at the University of Oklahoma,” Harjo said of Warrior. “Most of the Indians in Oklahoma couldn’t stand 'Little Red’ and we called him the dancing idiot. He was always portrayed by a white guy in Indian costume.”
Little Red was eventually banished by University of Oklahoma President J. Herbert Hollomon in 1970.
According to Harjo, activists involved in the effort to eliminate Native American mascots always viewed the Washington Redskins football team as “the worst” offender.
“No matter where you went or what was the mascot fight of the moment in any locale, everyone would always say, 'And the worst one is right there in the nation’s capital, the Washington team name,’” said Harjo. “It was the worst one, everyone pointed to it.”
Harjo moved to Washington D.C. in 1974. Soon after her arrival, she said someone gave her and her husband tickets to a Redskins game.
“We’re football fans and we can separate the team name from the game, so we went to a game. And we didn’t stay for the game at all, because people started — someone said something, 'Are you this or that?’ So, we started to answer, then people started like pulling our hair,” explained Harjo. “And they would call us that name and it was very weird for us. So, we just left and never went to another game.”
Harjo said her experience at the Redskins game “solidified” her opposition to stereotypical Native American sports mascots.
“That just solidified it for me because it wasn’t just namecalling, it was what the name had promoted,” Harjo said. “That’s the example of what objectification is. You strip the person of humanity and they’re just an object and you can do anything.
You can pull their hair! I wouldn’t even touch someone else!”
Harjo, who eventually became the first president of the Morning Star Institute, a D.C.-based national Native rights organization, began looking for ways to change the Redskins name. She said she settled on the strategy of trying to get the team’s trademark canceled after she was contacted by a Minneapolis lawyer named Stephen Baird in 1992.
According to Harjo, Baird was working on a law review article about his theory the Redskins’ trademark could be canceled based on a section of the U.S. Trademark Act prohibiting trademarks that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” Harjo said Baird heard she had “looked at all sorts of causes of action, and not settled on any of them, and had been talking with various attorneys about ways that we could approach this.” When Baird called her, Harjo said his “first question” was why she rejected using the Patent and Trademark Office as a forum to fight the Redskins name.
“And I said, 'I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” Harjo remembered with a laugh. “Once he explained his theory, I was so intrigued by his theory. It was very different from the kinds of things we’d been looking at. … It didn’t interfere with free speech, it wasn’t even forcing a decision. What it’s saying is, 'Here’s what the federal government will or will not sanction.’ Because, it’s the federal government’s role to grant the exclusive privilege of making money off this name.”
Meet the Navajo Activist Who Got the Washington Redskins’ Trademark Revoked: Amanda Blackhorse
“We don’t think that Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins co-owners should make money off of a racial slur directed at Native American people,” Blackhorse says, one of the plaintiffs that challenged the team’s trademark. Watch her interview on Democracy Now! today.
Sadly, the backlash to the band’s creative statement has already begun, as music festivals across Canada have reportedly been flooded by emails calling for A Tribe Called Red’s removal from the lineup. In an ironic twist, many of these critics claim that the t-shirt is “racist” against white people.
Let’s be very clear. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as “reverse” racism.
A Tribe Called Red, a band that has made headlines recently for its energetic anthems, is also made up completely of Aboriginal Canadians known as the First Nations people. The innovative group's shirt makes a satirical yet incisive statement about the ridiculous idea that it’s OK for non-white cultures to be mocked via mascots and team names that culturally appropriate customs and images held dear — and even sacred — to the originators. Although Dan Snyder and his supporters have attempted to argue to the contrary, even the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “redskin” even notes that it’s a dated, derogatory term.
Native Americans pass down stories to preserve their history and heritage, because we don’t have much of it left. As tribes were systemically exterminated, so too were their respective cultures. But we have our stories, and when my mother was young, her parents shared one about the term “redskins.”
The story in my family goes that the term dates back to the institutionalized genocide of Native Americans, most notably when the Massachusetts colonial government placed a bounty on their heads. The grisly particulars of that genocide are listed in a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation, which zeroed in on the Penobscot Indians, a tribe today based in Maine.
Spencer Phips, a British politician and then Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province, issued the call, ordering on behalf of British King George II for, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” They paid well – 50 pounds for adult male scalps; 25 for adult female scalps; and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.
These bloody scalps were known as “redskins.”
The mascot of the Washington Redskins, if the team desired accuracy, would be a gory, bloodied crown from the head of a butchered Native American.
Defenders of the team nickname say its origin was totally benign, and that it’s not possible to know the true meaning of the word. Those defenders cite a Smithsonian article that traces an origin to skin color, before the systematic scalping. (A later Smithsonian quote disputed it.)
But my mother knew what it meant, or what it came to mean, and so do many other Native Americans.
“That’s a hard lesson for a young girl to learn,” my mother says. I can’t remember when she passed it down to her four sons, only that the very mention of that word—the single-most offensive name one could ever call a Native American—has always made my blood boil.
Non-Natives may never quite understand how deep the term “redskins” cuts into ancient wounds that have never quite healed, and maybe it’s not reasonable to expect them to. But every time Dan Snyder refuses to change his NFL team’s name, even with tribes paying for powerful ads in opposition like the one that recently aired during the NBA Finals, Snyder plunges a long, twisted blade into our hearts.
I feel that pain not only because I’m a proud Native American, of Cherokee and Choctaw lineage, but because my parents steeped me and my brothers in that culture so that it would live on within us.
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