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Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Barbara Tyroler)
Levey Live Archive
Column: Bob Levey
Metro Section
Talk: Metro message boards
Live Online Transcripts

Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2000; Noon EDT

"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon EST. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Suzan Harjo
Suzan Shown Harjo

Today Bob's guest is Suzan Shown Harjo. Harjo is president and executive director of The Morning Star Institute, a national non-profit Indian rights organization. She is a poet, writer, lecturer and curator who has developed key federal Indian policy and law and has helped Native Americans recover more than one million acres of land.

Founded in 1984, The Morning Star Institute sponsors an on-going lawsuit against Pro Football, Inc. regarding the use of the Washington Redskins name. The institute is also involved in an international effort to achieve a treaty respecting Native Americans' cultural property rights.

Harjo has served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians and as Special Assistant for Indian Legislation & Liaison in the Carter Administration. She was a Stanford University visiting mentor and a Dartmouth College Montgomery fellow.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Laurel, Md.: Is your objection simply to the specific name "Redskins" because that term has a history as a derogatory racial epithet, or are you more generally opposed to the Chiefs, Braves and Indians as sports team names? [edited for space]

Suzan Shown Harjo: The "R" word is the most blatantly racist term, on its face, but I also believe that all Native references in sports should be retired.

Bob Levey: Can you summarize for us where your lawsuit against the Redskins stands?

Suzan Shown Harjo: We filed suit before the Patent & Trademark Board in September of 1992. Now, in our eighth year of litigation, we (seven Native American parties) have won the first round (in April of 1999) and our victory has been appealed to the federal district court for the District of Columbia, where the judge has various cross motions under consideration.

Manassas, Va.: Having been raised in Upstate New York, I learned a great deal about the history and culture of Native Americans (like the Senecas) as a youth in the '60s. Now when I visit New York all I hear about with regard to Native Americans is how great the Turning Stone Casino is. Has this type of publicity hurt Native American culture? Are you considering anything to reverse this tide?

Suzan Shown Harjo: This illustrates how little about Native Peoples has to do with our humanity, I think. We are not really considered as living, breathing people -- more as symbols: beads, feathers, tipis and now gambling joints.

Bob Levey: Here's how I understand your legal strategy: You hope to strip the Washington Redskins of their right to trademark the team name and team symbol. That would blow a hole in their profits, you figure, so Daniel Snyder will then change the name for financial reasons. Have I got it right?

Suzan Shown Harjo: You got it. The team owners are not in the business of altruism and, if they cannot make a buck off the name, to the exclusion of all other profiteers, then the name will be abandoned.

Bob Levey: Defenders of the name "Redskins" say it's a term of respect, not derision. They point out that when the team moved here from Boston in the 1930s, the coach was a Native American. Your response?

Suzan Shown Harjo: The key is in the word "they." They may not consider it a derisive term, but most Native Americans do consider it the worst name that we are called in the English language. It should be up to the offended class to say what is the offense -- it should not be up to the offenders.

Bob Levey: In 1998, the attorney for the Washington Redskins said that the term "redskin" is neutral. A fairly amazing position, if you ask me. Would that same attorney call "nigger" or "whitey" a neutral term? Your comment, please.

Suzan Shown Harjo: The attorney also said that same thing in a hearing before the Patent & Trademark Board, where the African American judge asked if there were any Native American organizations that used that term. The answer, of course, is no. The "r" word is comparable to the "n" word. One reason that white folks have a difficult time relating to this issue is that there is no comparable word to deride the whole of the white race -- there are words that condemn on a class basis, but not for the group as a whole.

Northern Virginia: I have not a racist bone in my body. When I hear "Redskin" I think "Washington football team," and secondarily about the image of a brave warrior. Why is it that you can't accept the honestly intended view that "brave," "chief," even "redskin" were chosen for their heroic connotations, just as are "panther" "eagle" or "raven"? MUST everything be viewed as having racist intent?

Suzan Shown Harjo: No one can judge your intent. We are pointing out the result -- the emotional violence such terminology and related iconography and practices visit on our children and teenagers. We are the responsible adult population and we are saying to you, no matter how well-meaning you may or may not be, enough is enough.

Bob Levey: My take on this: When people focus on football on an autumn Sunday, they want to lock out the concerns of the rest of the week. So relatively few Redskins fans see the name issue as a compelling one. "It's just about football," they say -- and genuinely believe. Am I making sense?

Suzan Shown Harjo: So would we like to relax with a good game and block out the concerns of the world. That's pretty hard to do when we are being called names, when we see our ceremonial practices mocked, when we see painted pig faces.... Not your day in park.

Bob Levey: This whole dispute is about a symbol, not a reality, it seems to me. Most real Native Americans have mortgages and crabgrass, just like other Americans, and they don't wear headdresses or scalp anyone. So if Daniel Snyder wants to preserve a Hollywood-ized symbol, and it has nothing to do with reality, and everyone on both sides knows that it doesn't, why do you care so much?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Symbols shape our reality. The dispute is about a derogatory name used to refer to Native Peoples since the days when the Europeans introduced scalping for profit -- when bounty payers began accepting scalps for the Indian heads and red skins for the whole Indian men, women and children. This awful word is a symbol filled with meaning for us. It is not acceptable to us to be referred to in this way. We hope that one day it will not be acceptable in polite society generally.

Bob Levey: When the Frito Bandido and Little Black Sambo were used by profit-making businesses in their ads, the outcry was so noisy that both companies soon backed down. Could it be that "Redskins" endures because Native Americans are relatively weak politically, and because there are only two million of you in the U.S.?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Yes, we are a small population -- two million -- and racism against us is nearly invisible, too.

D.C.: While I support your cause, I don't understand how you can use the courts to stop the Redskins from using this name. From a legal standpoint, how can you sue someone not to use a racial epithet? Aren't there freedom of speech issues here?

Suzan Shown Harjo: The team owners can call their team any racist thing they want. Our suit says that the federal government should not endorse their racism with a grant of exclusive privilege to make money from their exercise of racism. This is not a free speech issue.

Arlington: Prior to the Washington NFL team's opening game there was tons of local news coverage. On Friday several of the local tv stations were at the stadium getting excited about the game. They include an African American man dressed in faux-Native regalia who calls himself "Chief" something-or-other. I was sickened by it and immediately changed the station. How do you react to these sorts of caricatures of native people?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Seeing others in "cultural drag" is sometimes maddening, sometime laughable -- other times, though, it's just a sad thing.

Bob Levey: Notre Dame has a zillion fans all over the world, and I've never heard one of them object to the nickname of The Fighting Irish (even though many Irish don't fight). What's the difference between that nickname and The Washington Redskins?

Suzan Shown Harjo: The Notre Dame team's name began as a self-description. (Remember when most of the team, until Rockne, was comprised of Irish boys?) Now, of course, it isn't self-descriptive. The Irish are not going to mock themselves and they aren't going to stand for being mocked -- as was the case when Marquette sent a drunken mascot onto the game field some years ago. There is a great difference between self-description and name-calling.

Bob Levey: In 1992, WTOP Radio quit referring (for a while, anyway) to "The Washington Redskins." Three major newspapers in the U.S. still refuse to do so. What if The Washington Post were to join them? Would this change the dynamics of the discussion?

Suzan Shown Harjo: There are people who cannot see life without a team called the "r" word. If the Post were to call the team Washington only, this would provide both an instruction and example to the reading public. And, when the Republic were left standing, maybe more would see the change as something short of the end of the world.

Washington, D.C.: What do you consider the proper name -- Native American, Indian, American Indian, etc?

Suzan Shown Harjo: They're all wrong, so use them interchangeably. We are trying to reclaim our personal and tribal names and to stop the collective name-calling. We haven't gotten to the issue of what we are going to be called collectively. I am partial to Native Peoples at this time. Native Canadians prefer First Nations. Just don't call us the "r" word.

Bob Levey: Just to frame this a little more sharply:
One stanza of "Hail to the Redskins" goes like this:
"Scalp 'em, swamp 'em, we will.....
"Take 'um big score.....
"Read 'um, weep 'um, touchdown.....
"We want heap more.

That makes my skin crawl the same way it would if a song accused every Italian of saying "You toucha my car, I breaka you face," or every Chinese of saying, "No tickee, no washee."

Why is this analogy so hard for some people to see?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Nearly everything in popular culture tells people that Native Peoples are dead, gone, buried, forgotten (except for the modern blips like casinos) at the end of the 1800s. So, the big hurdle is getting into popular culture the notion that we are living human beings. We are objectified because we are not considered alive.

Washington, D.C.: Do you find the use of "Cherokee" as in Jeep Cherokee offensive? What about the military helicopters named Commanchee <sp>?

Suzan Shown Harjo: That's cultural theft, not name-calling. That's taking the name of living, viable nations and using them -- that cultural appropriation has been going on for a long time without even asking the people in question. Wouldn't it seem odd for a car to be called the France sedan or the Zulu jeep? It wouldn't happen, would it?

Bob Levey: Rosa Parks changed history when she refused to sit in the back of an Alabama bus. What if a Native American sat in on the 50-yard-line of JKC Stadium and refused to move?

Suzan Shown Harjo: In sports, only our symbols are valued. In life, the views of living Native Americans are despised by the same people who say they are honoring us with their use of references to us. I fear that a living Native person on the 50-yard line would be treated like a football. I would not encourage any Native person to put herself or himself in that harm's way.

Washington, D.C.: You say "Our suit says that the federal government should not endorse their racism with a grant of exclusive privilege to make money from their exercise of racism."

Well, if people are so upset, then they won't buy the trademarked products and the team won't make the money. It's supply and demand -- let economics take its course.

Suzan Shown Harjo: What if that standard had been applied to slavery, as it was for far too long?

Bob Levey: I do see a sliver of difference between names like Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves and the name of the Cleveland baseball team, the Indians.

Sure, that name was chosen to suggest ferocity and determination. But at least it isn't in-your-face racist. If the team were named the Cleveland Lithuanians or the Cleveland Protestants, I doubt that Lithuanians or Protestants would object. Your thoughts?

Suzan Shown Harjo: But there aren't such names, which is part of our broader point -- only Native Peoples are so targeted in sports. The, too, it becomes a matter of how much or little racism will you accept. If we can't call you the worst name, can we call you a lesser offending name? Try that in your mind with other peoples, races, cultures, religions, and see how the answers sit.

Bob Levey: The obvious moment to change the name of the Washington football was when Daniel Snyder bought it. Yet he swaddled himself in talk of "tradition." Were you surprised that Snyder didn't just junk the name as soon as he wrote the check? I actually thought he would.

Suzan Shown Harjo: I actually thought he would change the name, because he is young and he is Jewish. I thought the stereotyping would ring a bell with him. But, then I read that he wore a belt buckle with the "r" word all through high school and I understood what a driven young man he must have been.

Gaithersburg: How is the imagery used by the Washington R-words different from that of the Minnesota Vikings? They use as their mascot someone who represents a caricatured view of many Minnesotans' ancestors. Everyone knows it's hardly representative of modern Scandinavians.

Suzan Shown Harjo: Let's see -- there are no more Vikings. There are related peoples, but there are no Viking religion practitioners, etc. Our Cheyenne and Muscogee Peoples speak the same languages as our ancestors, practice the same religions, dance the same dances.... We are not the remnants of those who were -- we are the tangible evidence in the modern era of our ancient cultural continuums.

Beltsville, Md.: Are you willing to pay the Redskins to change their uniforms, stadium signs, stationary, etc?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Native Americans, even with the success of a handful of casinos, remain the poorest population in the U.S. We and I do not have enough money to pay the team's owners and the NFL the billions of dollars that they make off their racist activities. They will still make their money, even if they call the team a non-offensive name -- plus, they will have the pennies of our poor people, too, who just want to cheer for the home team and for the team in the nation's capitol.

Bob Levey: In 1999, Crayola voluntarily stopped calling its reddish-brown crayon Indian Red. Do you know if the company's sales have gone up as a result? I ask because I believe that the Washington Redskins are missing a bet here. I think if they went out of their way to change the team's name, and said why, and ate a little crow in the process, they'd reap millions of dollars worth of good publicity -- and millions of dollars worth of additional sales. Do you agree?

Suzan Shown Harjo: They would gain a wealth of good will. They would make a ton of money off the new stuff and they would make a bundle from the sale of memorabilia.

Germantown, Md.: Why wait so long? The Washington Redskins have been around for over 50 years and you decided in 1992 that is was worth fighting through the court system? Are similar law suits pending against the Braves and Indians?

Suzan Shown Harjo: No lawsuits that I know of. This is the one I'm involved with because I live and work in Washington, DC. In 1933, when the name started in Boston, the federal "civilization regulations" outlawed Native religions, ceremonies, dances, ponies, traveling to sacred places, teaching Indian kids anything other than an English-only, Christian-only education. Our medicine people and other spiritual leaders and practitioners were locked up and our items of worship were confiscated. These were the times. Native Peoples were hardly in a position to do anything about a sports team name in the 1930s. The Washington team owners did not register the "r" word name for the team until 1967. Native Peoples were fully protesting the use of the term by that time.

Bob Levey: Let's say that one fine day, three centuries from now, some sports team owner wants to honor your people in the right way. What should he name his team?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Let's just skip that honor, please. Don't forget that there's always another side whose job it is to mock your name, symbol, mascot -- let's just eliminate the human beings as sports targets, shall we?

Bob Levey: Why, if dozens of high schools and colleges have dropped Indian nicknames, do the Redskins adamantly refuse? Bucks, obviously--but is it something more?

Suzan Shown Harjo: More than one-third of the U.S. educational athletic programs have dropped their Native-American references. The commercial sports world will change, but only after a fight, because it has to do with power and image, beyond what Native America wants.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to our guest, Suzan Shown Harjo. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, Sept. 12, at the same time (noon Eastern). Our guest will be Washington's police chief, Charles Ramsey, back for his third appearance on the "Levey Live" griddle.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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