The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Native American women have been leaders in the fight against team mascots

Native Americans protest before the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins game on Nov. 7, 2013 at Mall of America Field at the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Amanda Blackhorse has seen plenty of Native American women take on struggles, starting with her paternal grandmother, or her nali’ in the Navajo language, who years ago resisted pushes from tribal and U.S. governments to move from her home on the Navajo Nation.

Now 32, a mother and social worker living in the reservation community of Kayenta, Ariz., Blackhorse is part of a different battle, the one to end the trademark protection of the Washington NFL team name. Back in 2006, she became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit, the second of its kind, to challenge the trademark of the name on grounds that it’s disparaging toward Native Americans.

She’s heard the criticism that Native people should focus on more pressing matters in Indian Country, namely poverty, violence, health disparities and housing shortages. Some of those issues were referenced in a letter Washington team owner Daniel Snyder sent to fans last week in announcing his franchise’s Original Americans Foundation and the reasons for establishing it.

But the way Blackhorse sees it, the word “redskin” itself is part of the problem for many of the societal struggles in Native communities today, including low self-esteem among youth that contribute to high dropout and suicide rates and the way so many reservation issues continue to be marginalized or cast aside.

“I don’t think that he understands that what he is doing is exactly the reason we are where we are,” she said of Snyder’s firm stance that he will never change the name, which he has argued is part of the 81-year-old franchise’s heritage and is meant to honor Native Americans.  “Nothing real is going to happen if he doesn’t get rid of the name.”

While not intentional, the long push to bring the Native American mascot issue to the forefront has been led, in large part, by women, such as Blackhorse, who highlight a recent history of Native female leadership.

There are more than 500 distinct tribal cultures across the United States, meaning there are nearly as many historic or traditional roles for women among them — from the tribes that placed women in political and decision-making roles to those in which women had no part in the political structure. In recent years, more women have taken posts of leadership in political causes, education, medicine and government. The late Wilma Mankiller, past principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is perhaps the best known among women tribal leaders.

Just as more women across the United States have stepped into leadership roles, it’s become clear, at least anecdotally, that during the past 30 years more Native American women also have assumed positions on tribal councils and taken on decision-making roles in their communities, said Joan Timeche, executive director at the Native Nations Institute at University of Arizona.

“The ones that I know of who are heading their families and have gone on to school and so on, they say they understand what their role was within the community,” said Timeche, who is Hopi. “They also understand that the support hasn’t always been there. They have been the ones who have stepped up to the plate.”

That leadership in the household appears to have led to leadership in women’s extended family, workplace and community, Timeche said.

And it has extended to the mascot issue.

In another high-profile mascot dispute, Charlene Teters, a member of the Spokane Indian Tribe in Washington state, was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the late 1980s when she began protesting against the school’s mascot Chief Illiniwek, and a school tradition that brought out a man in a buckskin suit and headdress to dance before games. In the documentary “In Whose Honor?” she tells of how she initially stood in front of the basketball stadium alone before games holding signs in protest before the movement gained steam. The University of Illinois’s mascot was retired in 2007.

Suzan Harjo, a past executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, began speaking out against mascots decades ago and recruited Blackhorse to take up the legal fight in 2006, after a federal judge found on appeal that Harjo and others had waited too long as adults to file their lawsuit in 1992. The New York Times has called Harjo “something of a godmother to the cause.” 

As a reason for their activism, all three women, at different times, have referenced their roles as mothers, a theme that cuts across cultural lines. “You’re not going to meet any more formidable advocate than a mother,” said Henrietta Mann, a longtime Native American studies professor at the University of Montana and now the president of Cheyenne Arapaho College on the campus of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Mann, in an interview on the topic of women in leadership, also said she opposed the Washington team name.

“In my estimation, a woman, a mother is not going to blink twice about saying, ‘I’m going protect the integrity of my tribe, my children,’” she said.

Harjo says Blackhorse was cut out for the responsibility she took up in joining the lawsuit. She became lead plaintiff in part because her name appeared first among the others who joined in the alphabet but more importantly because she was best suited for it. Blackhorse was already a mother, on her way to becoming a social worker and had organized protests against the Washington mascot as well as the Kansas City Chiefs when she was a student at the University of Kansas, Harjo said.

“I think that equipped her to withstand the kind of derision that you are met with in this case,” Harjo said.

For her part, Harjo says she has fended off name-calling and slights in her long-held opposition to the Washington NFL team name that have come in online comments and from pundits.

“People have said you are doing this out of class or for frivolous reasons, that people ought to take hold of you and control you or get you under control,” Harjo says. “All those things that are said about you that wouldn’t be said if you were a man.”

And then there are the things Harjo says people wouldn’t say if she weren’t a Native American woman: “All the Pocahontas stuff and the squaw stuff. Just really awful things, you know.”

Blackhorse said it’s helped over the years of her involvement in the mascot lawsuit to have women role models, including the women who raised her, especially her grandmother, who resisted moving from her longtime home.

“I think that as Native women that’s probably why we do work harder — because we’ve struggled more.” Blackhorse said. “I don’t really know how to compare it to anything else. I don’t know if it would be different if I were a man.”

Mary Hudetz is editor of Native Peoples Magazine and the president of the Native American Journalists Association. She lives in Phoenix. Reach her on Twitter: @marymhudetz.