By Mike Wise
Friday, September 18, 2009
Court documents the past two decades, filed by lawyers representing the NFL and its franchise in Washington, have classified Suzan Harjo as a "militant."
The 64-year-old American Indian writer, lecturer and curator thought hard about the label before she chuckled. She was sitting in her modest, two-story condo on Capitol Hill -- 17 years after she and six plaintiffs mounted a legal challenge to do away with the nickname of the franchise she calls "the Washington football team."
"The closest I've come to a militant?" said Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee. "I guess my father. Yep, he was very militant in World War II; he was a hero."
Her father, Freeland Douglas, a code talker, was plucked out of the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma to be part of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division-- an all-Native regiment known as the Thunderbirds. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 85. For more than 60 years, he carried shrapnel in his legs from the Nazi army, which wounded him in a battle south of Rome.
This might come as an outright shock to the tailgate mob, the well-meaning fans fastening their burgundy-and-gold flags with the red-pigmented human for Sunday's home opener: But, as honor goes, Freeland Douglas demonstrated his by being awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, not by having a team crudely named after his people.
"When we first won in 1999, my father was the first person I called," Harjo said. "I said, 'Dad, we won our lawsuit to challenge the team's trademark rights.' He said, 'We did?' He said 'We.' That meant so much."
Pro-bono lawyers representing Harjo, the lead plaintiff, and six other prominent American Indians asked the Supreme Court this week to rule on whether Redskins is too offensive to merit trademark protection. Their hope is that the court will follow the 1999 lead of Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., then a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who said such claims can be brought at any time. They want the Supreme Court to review a decision earlier this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the group waited too long to bring its claim.
Unfortunately, Harjo has been about as successful in court the past 10 years as Daniel Snyder's team has been on the field. Lower-court rulings have bought the propaganda from the other side.
But if the highest court in the land takes up the issue, suddenly Harjo becomes more dangerous to Snyder than Tony Romo or a labor stoppage.
If the name rightly is put to rest, millions of dollars in merchandise, paraphernalia and naming rights are at stake.
Look, you know where I stand on this. But I'm white. I have the skin color of the owner and some of his players. The rest of the roster's skin color is black. We can go back and forth all day about what genuinely honors a people and what constitutes co-opting someone's religious and spiritual practices and making it your own.
And you can call me a leftist, social engineer who fails to understand that John Riggins and Art Monk and Joe Gibbs define the meaning of "Redskins." And I can call you culturally brainwashed. I can trot out the story of a guy named Phil St. John I interviewed from Minnesota, how a white kid in war paint at a high school basketball game made 'woo-woo' sounds in his child's face -- until his kid turned away in shame, his self-esteem destroyed.
And we can continue to disrespectfully disagree.
The bottom line is we don't get the last word. American Indians do.
They first filed suit on September 10, 1992, before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Their first case was not heard until May 27, 1998. Now, after 17 years, they finally await word from the Supreme Court.
"The argument has always been the same," Harjo said. " 'We are honoring you,' they say. 'No, you're not,' we reply. 'Shut up,' they say. That's pretty much the divide for 17 years."
She chuckles again at the notion that the Redskins name, which was never changed in her father's lifetime, will also outlive her.
When Harjo first became what the team calls "a militant," friends at the University of Oklahoma were offended by the school's Little Red mascot. Little Red died in 1970. Back then there were more than 3,000 Native references nationwide. Today, there are fewer than 1,000. In 37 years, more than two-thirds of the Native references in American sports have been consigned to history and museums.
Currently working as a guest curator for exhibitions on treaties for the National Museum of the American Indian, Harjo sees the day when she is asked to curate a race-based exhibit for sports teams. The mantle of shame will include baseball caps from the Cleveland Indians -- as close to a Native Sambo as they come -- and names and logos from the Washington football team, so, Harjo said, "People can look and say, 'What were they thinking?' "