SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They clambered from a small caravan of SUVs and cars in a CVS parking lot. They unpacked a few banners emblazoned with slogans such as “I Am Not Your Mascot.”
Then they marched across the street to a restaurant, where a raucous gathering of Washington football fans, replete in all manner of burgundy and gold, partied at a patio bar on the other side of a chain-link fence. A woman in the marching group, armed with a white bullhorn, then led her troops in chanting and screaming at the football fans, making clear their opposition to the nickname of those fans’ favorite NFL team. The fans, some of whom where emboldened by alcohol, responded in kind.
And when the team kicked off its 2018 season the next day in nearby Glendale, Ariz., against the Cardinals, Amanda Blackhorse, with her bullhorn, and her group greeted arriving fans with an even larger group of protesters. It included Arizona state Rep. Eric Descheenie (D), who this year introduced a bill that would prohibit Arizona-funded stadiums and arenas from displaying team names and logos that Native Americans in Arizona, 5 percent of the state, deem offensive.
It was suggested that the struggle that native folk waged against Washington’s 81-year-old NFL franchise to change its name ended last summer at the Supreme Court, when justices ruled that an Asian rock band named after a slur could not be denied trademarking its name. The court said trademark law that restricted disparaging titles, which Native Americans long championed in their legal and moral struggle, was unconstitutional.
Blackhorse, representing native people in Blackhorse v. Pro Football Inc., withdrew the litigation. But she didn’t, thankfully, walk away from the fight. And why would she? By any count, she and native people are winning this battle.
Since American Indians first lobbied Washington in 1972 to cleanse itself of the mockery it was making of native people, the team has scrapped stereotyped lyrics from the fight song and wigs from the cheerleaders. Since Suzan Shown Harjo filed the first trademark suit in 1992, more and more high schools, colleges and universities across the country have wiped from their uniforms and stadiums nicknames and logos that Blackhorse, Harjo and other native people indicated were offensive.
And after Blackhorse won her case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in 2014, leading to a cancellation of the team’s trademarks because the board ruled the nickname was disparaging, many in the media announced that they would no longer use the nickname. I have done so for 20 years, after being educated about my transgression as a son of Washington who spent many Sundays with Dad or Mom or both in Section 312 of RFK Stadium.
But our city’s team remains the most prominent of holdouts and with the most racially offensive of native nicknames. Don’t go by any of the polls. As Justice Robert Jackson opined of certain issues in 1943 in West Virginia v. Barnette, which decided the state couldn’t compel participation in the Pledge of Allegiance: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote.”
This is one of those certain subjects.
“We should never poll human rights issues at all,” Blackhorse said, echoing Jackson. “What we have here is a social issue where we have victims. We have actual real native people who have been damaged by native mascots, by stereotypes, by violence, towards native people. It’s not up to the rest of the world to say what’s best for native people. Even in the native community . . . we’re not a monolithic people. There’s over 560-something federally recognized tribes in the United States. There’s a diversity. And we’re never going to all agree on one issue. We need to focus on the victims.”
Blackhorse became one in doing the right thing by protesting to cease and desist.
“Colin Kaepernick is definitely an inspiration,” she told me. “It’s been really sad to see how he’s been completely ousted from the NFL and ostracized from the NFL.”
“I know how that feels, to have to lose everything,” she added. “I lost my job because of this. I lost my home because of this. I went homeless at one point because of this.”
“I’ll tell you,” Blackhorse continued, her voice cracking and tears brimming, “having a master’s degree in advanced clinical licensure and having to go stand in line at the welfare office isn’t what I imagined how bad things would get. I’m not complaining, but that’s really the impact the adversaries can have on you.”
But Blackhorse was buoyed as the 2018 NFL season kicked off in earnest. A supporter of the effort to convince Washington to do the right thing bought four digital billboards in and around Phoenix to protest the team name. A purplish painted bus emblazoned with “Let’s Be Better Humans” made several trips to the Cardinals’ stadium, carrying scores of native people and supporters.
One white fan walked past Blackhorse’s group while sporting a burgundy and gold T-shirt with Caucasians where the team’s nickname would be and a logo of a white male’s face in a circle. “You get ’em on the outside,” the man said to the protesters, punching his fist in the air. “I’ll get ’em on the inside.”
“The scars are still open,” Blackhorse said of what she and her people’s struggle, which should be all of ours, has brought the past few years, “but I’ve really picked myself up.”