By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) – Suzan Shown Harjo remembers when she walked into a store with her grandfather in El Reno, Oklahoma. She wanted to get something cool to drink on a summer day. It was the early 1950s and the storekeepers told the 6-year-old she had to leave.
“No black redskins in here,” they said.
At that moment, Harjo felt small, unsafe, afraid. Because she was a dark-skinned Native American – Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee – she was being identified by just her coloring. She wasn’t even a whole human being. Not even her grandpa, whom she saw as all-powerful, could do anything to protect her.
Later in her life, that incident made her angry. Angry enough for Harjo to launch a lifelong mission to protect her people.
Suzan Shown Harjo has been fighting for decades to remove Native American mascots from sports teams.
Part of her work took aim at sporting teams that use Native Americans as mascots. With the start of the baseball season this week, some of those teams have been front and center. The Cleveland Indians, for instance, feature a smiling Indian dubbed Chief Wahoo, criticized by Native Americans as a racist caricature.
The most offensive example of a mascot, says Harjo, is the one used by Washington’s football team. She has been fighting for years to get the Redskins to change their name.
The R-word – she can’t even bring herself to say it – is the same as the N-word, says Harjo, president of Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization.
She finds it unbelievable that more than half a century after she was told to get out of that El Reno store, after decades of civil rights struggles and progress on race relations, Americans have no problem with rooting for a team called the Redskins.
Fans say the name is an honorific. But the Merriam-Webster dictionary says this: “The word redskin is very offensive and should be avoided.” And to many Native Americans, nothing could be more derogatory than the use of that word.
“The Washington team – it’s the king of the mountain,” Harjo says. “When this one goes, others will.”
The controversy over Native American names in sports is longstanding and surfaces in headlines now and then, as it did in December when the Atlanta Braves baseball team was reportedly considering bringing back a dated “screaming Indian” logo for batting practice caps.
Or when Amanda Blackhorse, a 31-year-old Navajo social worker, went to Washington last month to attend a hearing of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. She has petitioned to cancel the Redskins trademark on grounds that the name is racist. Harjo filed a similar petition in 1992 and won, but she later lost in the appeals process.
Harjo was defeated in the courts, but public opinion has been shifting steadily on the matter.
In March, several lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress that would amend the Trademark Act of 1946 to ban the term “redskin” in a mark because it is disparaging of native people. Among the sponsors of the bill is civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia.
Harjo says she hopes the legislation will accomplish what litigation has failed to do so far.
If passed, the bill would force the Washington football team to discard its trademarked name and ban the use of any offensive term in any future trademarks.
Proponents believe that Native American mascots pay homage to the people and help promote a better understanding of those who dominated America before Europeans landed.
The Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, has been criticized as a racist caricature.
But opponents say the mascots perpetuate stereotypes that are void of context and history. They argue that even if the mascots themselves are not racially insensitive, they portray native people as one-dimensional.
“A good many Americans don’t know any Indians,” says Kevin Gover, who heads the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“The Indian you see most often in Washington, D.C., is at a football game – at the expense of real Indians, real history, real culture. The petty stereotype has become expected.”
In February, the Smithsonian museum hosted a symposium on racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation in American sports. The idea was to make people think about how these stereotypes can be damaging to Indians.
“Kids grow up and think it’s OK,” Gover says. “It’s not OK.”
There used to be more than 3,000 teams with Native American names and mascots. That’s down to about 900 now – but that’s still 900 too many for Gover.
He grew up, also in Oklahoma, and recalled how the University of Oklahoma became the first collegiate team to drop its unofficial mascot, Little Red, a student who dressed as an Indian chief and danced on the sidelines during football games.
Protests on campus forced the demise of Little Red. In 2005, Oklahoma adopted two costumed horses, Boomer and Sooner, as mascots who represented the real horses that pulled the Sooner Schooner. But many students didn’t take to them.
One of them was Royce Young, who wrote about the university’s “mascot crisis” in an online forum in 2007:
“But why can’t OU bring back Little Red? Oklahoma prides itself on being ‘Native America.’ American Indian heritage is something that is more prevalent in this state than any other in the nation. Would it be so wrong to have Native American imagery representing ‘Native America?’ "
Young, 27, and a writer for CBS Sports, said he now believes he would have written a more educated post after having discussed the mascot issue with Native Americans.
"I wouldn’t say I regret writing it,” he said. “But I’d be much more sensitive of understanding why Little Red was insensitive to some instead of saying, ‘What’s the big deal?’ ”
Royce said he saw nothing wrong with Oklahoma honoring its native people, but not with a tasteless mascot.
Several college teams followed Oklahoma’s footsteps and dropped Native American mascots – Stanford and Syracuse among them.
The movement to do away with Indian mascots gained momentum after the American Psychological Association in 2005 called for the immediate retirement of the mascots based on studies that showed the harmful effects of inaccurate racial portrayals.
The following year, the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate sports, adopted a policy banning teams with “hostile or abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” from competition. The ban affected high-powered football schools such as Florida State University with Chief Osceola and the University of Illinois, whose official symbol was Chief Illiniwek.
Some states have put the morality of the Indian mascots up for a vote.
Last year, voters dumped the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux mascot. And Oregon prohibited public schools from the use of Native American names, symbols or images. The names on the banned list include: Redskins, Savages, Indians, Indianettes, Chiefs and Braves.
At Florida State University, a white man dresses up as Chief Osceola, smears war paint on his face and rides an appaloosa called Renegade to the middle of Doak Campbell Stadium. He plants a burning spear on the field before every home game. The marching band plays Indian-themed music, and the crowd goes wild doing the “tomahawk chop,” a move picked up by the Atlanta Braves.
FSU student Lincoln Golike, who played Osceola in 2002, told the Florida State Times back then that it was tremendous honor to have so many admiring fans.
The Seminole tribe in Florida made an agreement with FSU to allow the use of its name that allows the university to continue competing in the NCAA. The university says its relationship with the Seminole tribe is one of mutual respect.
However, the Seminole nation in Oklahoma, comprised of the descendants of a majority of the Seminoles forced from their lands by the Indian Removal Act, has voiced its opposition to FSU’s mascot.
The real Chief Osceola fought U.S. soldiers in the Seminole Wars. He was captured in 1837 under a flag of truce and died in prison. Before his burial, the soldiers chopped off the head of the Indian warrior to keep as a trophy. That Osceola serves as a mascot at FSU doesn’t sit well with the Seminoles in Oklahoma and many other Native Americans.
“Native Americans feel offended, they feel hurt. They feel their identity is being trivialized,” says Carol Spindel, who wrote “Dancing at Halftime,” a book that explored native mascots.
“This is such an ingrained part of American culture that it’s very hard to get people to question it,” says Spindel, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the official symbol used to be Chief Illiniwek. He was the subject of debate for decades and made his last appearance in 2007 under the threat of NCAA sanctions.
But five years later, there are still some who want Illiniwek back. A nonbinding student referendum held just weeks ago strongly favored making him the official mascot again.
Spindel concluded in her book that mascots such as Chief Illiniwek were a reflection not of native people but of those who invented them.
“If we do a census of the population in our collective imagination, imaginary Indians are one of the largest demographic groups,” Spindel writes in her book.
“They dance, they drum, they go on the warpath; they are always young men who wear trailing feather bonnets. Symbolic servants, they serve as mascots and metaphors. We rely on these images to anchor us to the land and verify our account of our own past. But as these Indians exist only in our own imaginations, they provide a solipsistic connection and leave us, ultimately, untethered and rootless.”
At 67, Harjo believes she has made strides in her struggle to do away with racial stereotypes but says Native Americans have a long way to go.
“Because we as Indians, we don’t have the numbers,” she says, referring to the dwindling population. The latest census listed 2.9 million people as American Indian and Alaska Native.
“So we don’t pose a threat,” she says. “If we organized a march, the numbers would be so small. We’ve done it school by school. State by state.”
Harjo knows if the powerful Washington football team is forced to discard its name, then everyone else will follow. But for now, she takes pride in small victories.
Just a few weeks ago, a high school in Cooperstown, New York, decided to retire its R-word mascot.
C.J. Hebert, superintendent for the Cooperstown Central School District, said students approached him regarding their discomfort with the mascot that had been around for decades.
“I do think that times change and perspectives change, and certainly it’s historically a time for us to reconsider what the name is,” Hebert said.
That’s a statement that makes Harjo feel her campaign has been worthwhile.
Tell us what you think about Native American names and mascots below.
It isn't just Native Americans who are misrepresented by mascots. The Minnesota Vikings mascot appeara as a caricature of the true Vikings. True Vikings never wore those stupid helmets. The Irish do not look like Leprechauns and fight all day. If Americans, do not understand their own hisyory how can they appreciate anyone else's?
I think it depends on the context. My elementary school team name is the Indians. Our town, however, has a Pierpole parade celebrating a well known (to our area) Native-American and the motto for the combined high school/elementary school was "Mussul Unsquit" (which was the Native American word for our river). Historic ties and no disrespect.
If I was never allowed to use the "r" word around my paternal grandmother, a woman born on what's now the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, formerly the St. Regis reservation, I can't understand how the NFL allows this to be used. Oh, that's right, the NFL is a multi billion dollar gambling entity afforded anti-trust protection from Congress, and basically can do whatever they want.
So the people who have no problem with this would not object to a team called The Pagans who had an upsidedown crucified Jesus as their logo?
Why would Pagans want to Crucify Mr. Christ? He's kind of a Hippy Dude who had a healthy disrespect for totalitarian authority, be it civil or religious. Frankly, I think he'd be welcome as one of us.
Racially sensitive people make me cringe. These people don't realize that hanging up on this subject is in itself racist.
Change the mame already and we can get one step closer to ridding this nation completely of any memory of these indigenous simpletons that can't hold their firewater.
Stupid to name a team after a bunch of losers!
Wait a minute! Could it be that the name was chosen out of respect for the courage and valor of these indigenous warriors?
Nah! Give'm some cheap cigs and throw in some rot gut. Now that's the Redskins all us insensitive white folks think about.
Mike I would have to say "out of respect". I proudly graduated from Atchison High School located in Atchison, KS in 1983. Our school mascot is an Indian Chief. Our teams are know as The Atchison Redmen (the Jr. High's is a Brave). NEVER in the history of our school has anyone complained or even thought of it as being racist. Atchison is small town in NE KS. We have Native Indians that live here in town, on reservations, and in smaller towns further in the country. No one has ever said they were offended. If you go to Atchison, you will hear only pride in the voices of the people there when they talk about the Atchison Redmen. Well, that's if they're not having a losing season. I proudly continue to show pride in my high school mascot. I'm an Atchison High Redman till I die.
Mike, I challenge you to use the term "Redskins" in a sentence in a way that is honorific and doesn't sound like a racial slur.
It's a racial slur pure and simple, nothing honorific about it.
Mike nice try but just because you put "mighty" in front of it doesn't make it any less racist. That and that sentence was uttered by nobody ever.
Hugo, what have you never heard of a racist court? US courts have in the past supported slavery, the internment of US citizens and segregation. Just because a court rules doesn't make it right.
Be real Don!
The only reason you've taken up this fight is because your a bigot.
The only reason you have taken up this fight is because you couldn't make the team!
You would clearly be a disaster in the locker room, and probably dangerous to yourself and your team on the field.
This Harjo person hates football and organized sports! The real motive here, is to obtain gratification by depriving others of something they hold dear.
(sarcasm on). Oh yes! Finally I can come clean! The reason I hate racist terms in my language is because I didn't make the team! Oh thank you Mike, if it weren't for you I would have wasted my life defending inclusion. Now, I can go back to being the ignorant insensitive racist lout like all the other Redskins fans! Go! Redskins! (sarcasm off)
No sarcasm from this side!
Touched a nerve though and revealed your weakness.
It must have been terribly painful to have to sit at home or in the stands on a Friday night in the fall.
No letter jacket! No cheerleaders! No one bragging on your play on Saturday morning.
I wouldn't be surprised if you felt discriminated against!People that can't compete often feel that way, but it a'int cause of the color of their skin.
Weakness? ha! Sorry Mike I don't have lingering resentment for not being chosen. In order for me to have that I would have had to try out and I was too busy skateboarding. Again, nice try. It's obvious that in attacking me you have nothing relevant to add to the conversation. And school yard name calling is a bit above me these days although it does seem to say a lot about you.
Don Black writes:
"Now, I can go back to being the ignorant insensitive racist lout like all the other Redskins fans! Go! Redskins!"
"....And school yard name calling is a bit above me these days although it does seem to say a lot about you."
First, calling someone an "Ignorant, Insensitive, Racist Lout" is is far more offensive than the word "Redskins" ever has been or ever will be.
Second, Good luck with the Schizophrenia!
Hey Skate King Don!
I outed you, and in the process uncovered the core emotions and motives behind this PC movement.
While the PC movement is not uniquely American, we are the founders and the truest practioners of this culture consuming scourge.
Sadly, we as a nation and a people are well on the way to turning this fabulous experiment into an antiseptic and tasteless gruel providing nutrition for neither body nor soul.
The right and left are both guilty of being part of the PC movement, and both have wrought irreparable damage to the fabric of this nation in doing so.
Go to bed tonight Don knowing that you are cut from the same cloth as the freaks that don't let their children take part in Halloween, and the ones that don't want their children to play with toy guns or read Tom Sawyer.
Rejoice in your victories in the PC crusade, but know you are destroying a great cultural ecosytem in the process.
Skateboarding? I'm sorry I bullied you.
"I it's truly a "racial slur", then why did the Courts rule that there was ..."insufficient evidence of disparagement"?"
How many Native Americans were there on that court?
Mike, if you "choose" a name for your team out of respect for a group of people and that group of people say they don't want "their" name associated with your team because they feel offended – not respected – by it, are you justified in the continued use of that name?
.....and what if 90% of the "offended group" WASN'T actually "offended"?
"In a study performed by the National Annenberg Survey, Native Americans from the 48 continental U.S. states were asked "The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you?" In response, ninety percent replied that the name is acceptable, while nine percent said that it was offensive, and one percent would not answer."
@mike: do you mean the respect for courage and valor that you show so nicely in your above post?
You make me wanna through up. I would be proud a team was named after my family and there passed.
The English language is dying a horrible death.
If you have a problem with this team's name, it's your problem.
We had a "Dirtbags" team once, they were called the Senators...
Last I checked, free speech is still allowed in this country. If a business (the NFL) wants to brand itself with a term you find unacceptable, they are still allowed to. Citizens United affirmed that corporations have the same free speech rights as people, so the Redskins can call themselves whatever the heII they want. You have the option to boycott their business if you so desire. That's all there is to it.
My husband is native American, and though he has never said it is offensive I know he would get upset if someone called him a red skin, mainly cause he skin is not red! He is light skinned, that's because not every native American is dark. People should think if this team or teams were called the brownskins or black skins,would we be having this conversation, NO!. While some names are not offensive, ie braves, others are. Just because a race does not make a big stink of it collectively does not mean it is less offensive. In such an enlightened world, many are still in the dark ages.
Brownskins and Blackskins are NOT racial slurs or derogatory terms.....never have been.
Moron.. this country commited a GENOCIDE the likes of which i cannot find anywhere in the recorded history of mankind!!
every conqueror would have done the same had they had access to technology that allowed it. Doesn't make it OK, but don't act like its never happened before.
It only happened in the US and Australia. Genocide before that was extremely rare. In fact I can't think of another instance before then. Before 1930 it was legal to murder a Native American as they were not considered US citizens until then. While you could technically be arrested for disturbing the peace, discharging a firearm within city limits. that type of thing, you would not have faced any legal consequences for killing the Native American. Plenty of people did just that. Here in California whole tribes were wiped out by miners coming here for the Gold Rush. Our great grand fathers.
@Hugo you miss my meaning, plus you are wrong. None of these genocides but the first happened after the conquest of North America. The first one comes from the Old Testament and it cannot historically be accurately verified. The US and Australia are the only countries that acquired their territory by killing off and occupying (permanently) a native population.
Here's a good compromise: we change the team's name to the "Washington Marauders" (remove the Native American element entirely) and change the logo to an assault rifle. You liberals ok with that?
that would definitly be more apt and attuned to what washington is anyway!! Good idea !!!
I would pay to see the liberals scramble. If I owned the Redskins I'd definitely toss this idea out there just to watch them squirm.
I feel native americans on this... in the age where being PC is king its inconcievable why these obviously socially/politically/morally incorrect racial slurs. We must NEVER forget that these people's lives are STILL affected by the wholesale slaughter their people went threw so WE can have the privilige to dance around in face paint and do tomahawks. Point blank, its offensive, they find it offensive so honor it. If it were the gay/lesbian/transgender community in an uproar about the ""Fairmount fairies"" or the "boston butt bangers" there would quick and decisive action, media scrutiny, nancy, anderson, oreilly, etc... Political intervention.... But because of the shame (hopefully) of the atrocities commited against Native Americans the current sentiment is "get over it, we gave you some casino's so suck it up"... More than likely though the sentiment is "we won, you lost take it or get out!)... SMH... Tragic
Despite vocal and legal action from Native American groups and scholars, the majority of people surveyed on the subject do not find the name offensive. Following the 1992 Super Bowl protests, the Washington Post posted a survey in which "89 percent of those surveyed said that the name should stay."
In a study performed by the National Annenberg Survey, Native Americans from the 48 continental U.S. states were asked "The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you?" In response, ninety percent replied that the name is acceptable, while nine percent said that it was offensive, and one percent would not answer.
Upon the news that the Redskins had been sold, the owners appealed the decision to a district court in the District of Columbia in Pro-Football, Inc. vs. Harjo. The court reversed the decision on the grounds of "insufficient evidence of disparagement". Subsequent appeals have been rejected on the basis of laches, which means that the Native Americans had pursued their rights in an untimely and delayed manner.
The court reversed the decision on the grounds of "insufficient evidence of disparagement"
What's that?............."insufficient evidence of disparagement"
Say Again?..............."insufficient evidence of disparagement"
In other words their is LITTLE TO NO EVIDENCE that the name "Redskins" has EVER been offensive, derogatory or racist.
Funny, how people who defend the name of the "Redskins" keep getting called "Racist" when that is a FAR more OFFENSIVE R-word than "Redskins" ever could be.
One side cheers "Redskins" with JOY and PRIDE.
The other side scorns and ridicules them as "Racist" with HATE and CONTEMPT.
I know which "R" word I find OFFENSIVE.
These 'Indian' team names aren't intending offense to anyone. If all of the 'Indian' team names were eliminated, who, outside of history teachers, would talk about Native Americans? So in a way, the team names are keeping Native Americans relevant to people who've never lived around them and people under 30.
you just outlined a major problem with history education. most of North American history should be about Native American/indian history but instead it is taught from the point of view of the conquistadors. so it is white man's history. the stretch that we need indians to be mascots to learn about them is dumb. we need to have a less white centric education for our children so they will know better. thanks for accidentally illustrating that.
exactly what should be taught in history classes? Evil Europeans conquered a couple continents and treated the conquered like garbage just like nearly every single conquering people in the history of humans has done. Lets just focus on the evil done by whites, forget the evil done by all other conquerors, and spend lots of time talking about the insignificant non-world -impacting events that happened before conquerors arrived. Great.
@verytiredofthis It is not like every other conquered people in the history of mankind. Most historical conquering is done for tribute, even the European colonialist left the native culture intact. Only the US and Australia have come in and attempted to kill off the existing culture to supplant their own.
@DonBlack. No, incorrect. Very, very incorrect.
@DonBlack You are absolutely wrong, accounts of total genocide have been recorded throughout history. Browse through the bible and you'll note some there as well. Total eradication of the locals was common place in ancient warfare regardless of race,color,creed or religion.
Did hillbillies get mad when the show The Beverly Hillbillies came out?...Noooo!
Don't they have the Fighting Irish? Are the Irish mad at that?
I'm sorry, Merriam Webster says what about the word?
I don't see the word "avoided" anywhere on that page. Perhaps you're thinking of a different Merriam Webster that doesn't have a web site that is easily searchable and linkable, proving you wrong?
Would you care to make any other ... uhm ... claims?
Oh, right, that "the r word" (what is that? Does *ANYBODY* know what "the r word" is?) is equal to "the n word".
Whiny. That is what she is. Pathetic and whiny.
What about..."The Fighting Gays" Almost an oxymoron.
A baby was recently cured of AIDS
An Olympic runner excelled with no legs.
We are busy exploring the surface of Mars.
The life expectancy of Cancer patience has dramatically increased.
Indians have built great universities.
All of our Universities in conjunction with the Government, Businesses and scientists have put the power of mass media into the hands of ALL of the people.
And yet, some have time to whine and encourage others to feel sorry for themselves.
Profoundly stupid post. And it's patients, not patience.
You don't value my priorities and I think yours are pathetic.
Such is life.
tribeless's post is spot on. also, ditch the grammar police act. we're posting tidbits on the internet, not writing term papers.
Why don't people complain about Spartans, Trojans, Celtics, Irish, Patriots, Giants, Pirates, etc. All of them could be seen as disparaging some Greeks or Turks or Irish or American or Tall People or People who sail in ships. What about animal names – Jaguars have been so bad the past couple of years so doesn't that insult large cats? The Royals – what's up with that, 240 years after getting rid of a king and they still rub it on our faces? Angels? Not fair to Christians. Twins – multi-birth-child-phobic. Don't even get me started on "Browns." Why don't Cowboys boycott the Dallas team?
Depictions of cowboys in cinema make white people look bad. This name must also be removed. It is offensive.
Our local team is call the Indian, they ARE NA and if she gets her way the team will have to drop the name.
But will it do ANY good at all, probably not, notice a lot of activist don't take on the really tough issues, they take on the easy feel good ones. Even if she managed to ban all Indian mascots will it make a difference, not really. Unemployment, drug use, alcohol use child abuse, rape, murder will still be the same. She's spending time and money on this and it doesn't matter.
The people working on the hard issue almost never get press, they are making a difference, but it's hard work and the rewards are few and far between. Enough with the feel good activist and lets really solve the problems facing NA. And yes I'm NA.
Growing up I was a Irish/Italian Catholic kid in a public school full of Protestants and Jewish kids that could not pronouce my name. They couldn't understand why I had to go to CCD and they couldn't understand the First Communion. I later went on to Catholic schoold but you know what? I don't hold a grudge or resentment towards those that didn't understand. If you looked at me you would see a white girl but this white girl had a lot racial slurs thrown at her. You know what? I survived and it didn't get me down.
Who you are is not as important as what you do.
If what you do is try to manipulate the language then you are contemptible.
What defines you? Maybe it’s the shade of your skin, the place you grew up, the accent in your words, the make up of your family, the gender you were born with, the intimate relationships you chose to have or your generation? As the American identity changes we will be there to report it. In America is a venue for creative and timely sharing of news that explores who we are. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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