Don't dance in the end zone ... yet

Suzan Harjo, Hodulgee Muscogee and Cheyenne, has been pushing for the retirement of racist mascots for decades. (Photo by Vincent Schlling, Indian Country Today)

Mary Annette Pember

Corrected: Amanda Blackhorse hopes the Washington NFL team will do more than a thorough review and apologize for taking up years of their time and energy in this fight.

Mary Annette Pember

Indian Country Today

Could this be the tipping point for retiring the most conspicuous example of racist mascots?

The Washington NFL team issued a press release Friday announcing its plans to “undergo a thorough review of the team’s name as a result of recent events around our country and feedback from our community.”

The team and its owner Dan Snyder have stubbornly clung to the use of the R-word as its mascot for years, weathering many attempts by Native Americans and allies to change it.

Suzan Harjo, activist, journalist, founder and president of The Morning Star Institute is cautiously elated. “I’m not ready to dance in the end zone yet,” she said.

Harjo is one of seven Native people who filed the 1992 landmark lawsuit, Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. claiming that the R-word name violated federal trademark law by disparaging people. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in 2017 that the disparagement clause was not constitutional therefore shooting down the case.

Now, however, as companies such as Nike remove the team name and team apparel from their website and the country calls for changes in long standing racist symbols and names, the Washington NFL team may drop its fraught mascot.

Harjo of the Hodulgee Muscogee and Cheyenne tribes and other Native activists have worked since the 1970s to eradicate the use of Native Americans as sports mascots.

“Historically these battles have the same story arc; first the school or team propose reviews and studies of the issue and create a process for input from the public,” she said.

The tactic is typically one of avoidance according to Harjo. “Finally they may propose a minor change that doesn’t’ address the issue; they try to find something that’s not as offensive,” she said.

“But little racism is still racism," she said. "That’s why we’ve called for an end to the use of Native mascots."

The roots of the "R word" traces back to bounty proclamations issued by companies, colonies and state governments that issued rewards not just for Native scalps but for the scalps of their genitals, giving proof of death, according to Harjo.

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'End with a new name'

This time the debate is different.

Mike Jones, NFL reporter and columnist for USA Today published a tweet about the issue. “Asked two different people very plugged into Snyder’s decision make about this name review and chances of R-word remaining. Both said, “It’s over.” And, "Snyder’s got no choice.”

The Washington Post reports that the team will “end with a new name.”

Harjo talked about the history of her and others long battle in creating awareness and change.

“These have been long, long fights by thousands of Native and non-Native people fighting lonely isolated, unpopular battles challenging the trappings of racism,” she said.

Activists were accused of being anti-sports and unsupportive of athletes.

“We have consistently been cast as aggressors,” Harjo said.

“It can be debilitating; you feel as though the world is coming after you; in the public’s perception, it may seem that these changes have occurred over the past two weeks but it has taken a long time,” she said.

Harjo first grew aware of the damaging impact of Native mascots on Native people as a high school student in 1960’s Oklahoma after meeting Clyde Warrior of the Ponca tribe, a champion fancy dancer.

“Clyde came to our school as a speaker. He is the one who energized and informed me. He helped me make sense of the damage of mascots as a cohesive argument as valid as scientific theory,” she said.

Harjo also described the impact of work by academics such as Stephanie Fryberg, Tulalip, whose study “ Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots” measured the impact of mascots on Native student’s esteem and academic performance.

“She helped show that the use of Native mascots hurts both Native and non-Native people; this behavior hurts the society that is abusing people,” Harjo said.

Fryberg’s work showed that as mascots diminished Native students’ self-esteem they conversely made non-Native students feel good.

“That is the definition of an abusive society; that is what we have been working against as we try to excise ourselves from that continued cycle of abuse.”

“This is personal; it’s been like a child finally telling their abuser, “Don’t hit me anymore,” Harjo said.

She recalled that the University of Oklahoma's "Little Red," was the first Native sports mascot to be eliminated in 1970 followed by college athletic programs at Dartmouth, Stanford and Syracuse in the 1970’s and St. Bonaventure in 1975 as well as support from the National Education Commission and others.

“People don’t even know about this history; that was huge news at the time,” she said.

According to Harjo, many people today are unaware of schools’ past association with Native mascots.

She lauds the fact that mascots are now so completely gone from some schools that today people know nothing of the history.

Fortunately according to Harjo, times and sensibilities change. “We used to think this but now we don’t because we are dynamic people. I think that happens in society, she said.

The sticking point, however, is white privilege. “White privilege looks at us and says if we give you any quarter or let you be in charge you will be as bad to us as we were to you. They are afraid about the loss of land and resources. They have an ancient fear that comes from guilt. They know how they got this land; the world knows it and they are afraid we will try to take it back,” Harjo said.

“White privilege looks at Black people and thinks, “we own you.” They look at us and think, “we defeated you”; in fact, neither is true.”

Harjo is elated with success in eliminating mascots so far. “More than two thirds of Native mascots have been eliminated from public schools; we’ve gotten rid of them from colleges. It’s an amazing thing; the rest will eventually fall like leaves in November.”

She cautioned, however, that there is still a great deal of work to do. “We still have about 900 schools to go.”

Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse joined forces in the fight against the Washington NFL team franchise
Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse joined forces in the fight against the Washington NFL team franchise (Indian Country Today photo by Vincent Schilling)

Amanda Blackhorse of the Dine Nation agrees. Blackhorse, a psychiatric social worker, was a plaintiff in Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc, a case that essentially took up where Harjo’s left off. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated decisions that had cancelled the Washington NFL teams federal trademark registration in 2017.

“This is definitely a historic moment; we’re all very happy but we won’t celebrate until the Washington team eliminates all Native imagery and such references in the franchise,” she said.

Blackhorse noted that momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement helped create a platform for people to talk about and better understand racism.

“It’s so unfortunate that people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others had to die before people began to pay attention,” she said.

Although she is excited about the potential change, Blackhorse hopes the Washington NFL team will do a thorough review of themselves and apologize to people such as herself and Harjo for taking up years of their time and energy in the fight to drive change.

“They say they will consult with people. Why don't they consult with us, Stephanie Fryberg and organizations such as Illuminative that have helped people gain awareness about the negative impact of Native mascots,” she asked.

“It worries me that they are conducting their own review,” she said.

Blackhorse noted that the Washington team created a foundation giving money to Native Americans. Dan Snyder created the Washington R-word Original Americans Foundation in 2016 giving things such as vans, computers and winter coats to 20 tribes.

“They need to continue the foundation but minus the imagery,” she said. “They need to make things right.”

This story has been updated to correct name of Ahmaud Arbery and delete the word "happy" from Amanda Blackhorse's comment regarding the Washington NFL teams creation of a foundation. The University of Oklahoma was the first college sports Native mascot eliminated  in 1970 followed by Stanford, Dartmouth, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure in the 1970s'.

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