Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne, can barely bring herself to say it. The word that is the name of a beloved football team to thousands is, to her, a hideous racial slur.
Yesterday, she and several dozen others gathered to rally support in the fight against the word: Redskins.
"Change the Name! An Interfaith Gathering to End Racism in Sports," held at the National City Christian Church in Northwest Washington yesterday, featured emotionally charged testimonials, poems, songs and prayer.
"Redskin" is the single most insulting word a Native American can be called in the English language, said Harjo, the event's organizer and a District resident. "By using the name, people don't even know they are engaging in a tradition of racism."
The speakers were surrounded by Native American drums and wool blankets. A handmade satin quilt of the Morning Star, a symbol for crop fertility to Native Americans, hung behind them. The event also included video clips of movies that present stereotypical images of Native Americans, such as Disney's 1953 animated version of "Peter Pan," and pictures of fans at college and professional sporting events imitating Native Americans.
"We're mascots; we're not humans," Keith Harper, a member of the Native American Rights Fund, told the audience. "If you dehumanize us, then you can enslave us, then you can commit genocide against us."
About 60 people attended the gathering, which had 35 sponsors, including the 14 top national Native American groups and a number of religious and ethnic associations.
Harjo said she believes many Washington Redskins fans do not know about the controversy surrounding the name of their favorite team. She planned the gathering to form a broader base of support.
"This is enlarging the circle. We wanted to broaden this issue from a Native American issue solely to a social justice issue, universal to all people," Harjo said. "Sometimes people need to be asked to participate, to have permission to act. With this gathering, we wanted to extend that invitation and that permission to other groups.
"We're such a small population," she said, "we can't go door-to-door to ask people to acknowledge us."
A number of those in attendance agreed to form a steering committee to plan further consciousness-raising efforts.
Thomas Ruffin, chairman of the D.C. chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, said, "We stand wholeheartedly in support of what I consider are our people against this highly offensive reference."
Since 1992, Harjo has been fighting a legal battle with Washington's National Football League team. In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the Washington Redskins have no right to trademark their name because it is disparaging to Native Americans.
The Redskins filed a lawsuit June 1 in U.S. District Court contesting the decision, according to team attorney Jack Reiner.
"Over the long history of the Washington Redskins, the name has reflected positive attributes of the American Indian such as dedication, courage and pride," team spokesman Mike McCall said in a statement yesterday. "The team has become an institution in the city of Washington, and the team's popularity unifies the nation's capital."
Harjo contends that the word, which she said many Native Americans cannot even say without flinching, cannot have a positive connotation.
"The name has never been an honorific, and no matter how many times they say, it never will be," she said. "To persist in this is so arrogant." The owners, she said, "cannot claim ignorance."
Harjo said this is not simply a battle over trivialities. "Words have meaning. We signed so many treaties that didn't mean what we thought they did," she said. "At first it may appear to be a narrow issue, but it is so contextual, so atmospheric. If we can't get this right, how can we work on the more difficult issues? We must clear away the underbrush of stereotypes so our real personas, our humanness, shines through."
Said Ray Apodaca, chair of the Human Religious and Cultural Commission of the National Congress of American Indians: "Putting us in cartoons and movies makes us unreal. We become part of a past history that doesn't exist anymore. We are here to tell [the Redskins] team and owners that it's over, it's time to change. Let's start the new era from here, now."
CAPTION: At a church in Northwest Washington, Manley A. Begay Jr. opens the rally, called "Change the Name! An Interfaith Gathering to End Racism in Sports."