For Cheyenne Woman, It Still Hurts to Hail the Home Team

Suzan Harjo's case against Pro-Football Inc. is in its 16th year.
Suzan Harjo's case against Pro-Football Inc. is in its 16th year. (2000 Photo By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

These are the times that try Suzan Harjo's Cheyenne soul.

Her lawsuit claiming that the name "Redskins" denigrates Native Americans appears to have stalled in the courts. Several tribal elders who were among her staunchest allies recently died. And everywhere she looks, the dreaded name and logo of Washington's professional football team are in full bloom.

"It's sad because I'm outside the fellowship of good feeling," Harjo, a District resident and president of a Native American advocacy organization, told me recently. "I want to support the home team. But it's very hard when they are carrying a racist name."

Fans, it seems, couldn't care less. They are on the "warpath," all but drowning out Harjo's concerns with cheers for a team that's headed for the National Football Conference playoffs. Owner Dan Snyder says the name is an honorific, not a slur, and has vowed not to change it.

But what Snyder won't do, Harjo is hoping the courts will.

In 1992, she and six other Native Americans petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel federal trademark protections of the Redskins name. Expert witnesses testified that the use of Indians as sports mascots adversely affected the self-esteem of Native American children. It was bad enough, they argued, that the Indian population had been targeted for genocide. To now caricature and stereotype the survivors only added insult to injury.

"Regardless of what non-Native people claim the word means, for us it refers to Indian scalps taken by European bounty hunters," Harjo said. "It's the effect of the word on those who see and hear it that matters, not the intention of those who use it."

A three-judge panel of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed and ruled in Harjo's favor. But a federal judge later reversed the decision, siding with claims by Pro-Football Inc. that there was no proof that Native Americans are offended by the name and saying that even if they were, they should have complained in 1967, when the federal trademark was granted.

Harjo appealed. And now, with the case in its 16th year, she must try hard to keep the faith. Another plaintiff in the case, Vine Deloria Jr., a Lakota and intellectual force behind the movement against Indian mascots, died last year. His 1969 book, "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto," addressed Indian stereotypes and challenged white audiences to take a closer look at the underhanded ways the West was really won.

Vernon Bellecourt, a Lakota and president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, died in October. A fiery activist and eloquent spokesman for Indian rights, he didn't mince words when referring to Washington's home team: "Start playing football and stop playing Indian," he'd say.

Harjo's spirits were lifted in 2006, when six young Native Americans filed a lawsuit against the Redskins that was similar to hers. The plaintiffs were ages 18 to 24 -- which meant they could not have complained about the trademark in 1967 because they were not yet born.

"The younger generation understands that this is no minor issue," Harjo said. "When people can be racist in public and target your kids with derogatory stereotypes, all responsible people must take a stand."


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