The Spirit of Suzan Shown Harjo

Leading the fight against racism

Posted Nov 05, 2014

November is Native American Heritage month, an opportunity to recognize the significant contributions made to this country by Native American people. And there is perhaps no better way to honor them than by listening to and understanding the message of Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the most revered human and civil rights leaders in the country. Harjo has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of Native Peoples; she served as legislative and Indian liaison under President Jimmy Carter, later as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and currently as president of The Morning Star Institute. In those roles, Harjo has worked tirelessly on the enactment of  American Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Museum of the American Indian Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and Executive Order No. 13007 on Indian Sacred Sites. And there is perhaps no better way to honor Suzan Shown Harjo than to heed her important civil and human rights message: “Native” team names and images are racist, they destroy the mental health of actual Native children, and this racism must stop.

Harjo knows that the ongoing use of racist team names and symbols violate the United Nations (U.N.) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration states that Indigenous Peoples have the rights to self-determine their own identity and to be free from discrimination. Harjo says, “When people continue to use slurs against us and to appropriate our identities, then you have name calling and stealing. I don’t know which is worse. They are both from a racially biased, bigoted impetus and origin.” And this racist behavior interferes with self-determination because it is so pervasive. She says, “These images and slurs are in your face all the time. Not just when there’s a game. They’re on the national airways. They’re in the grocery stores. They’re in advertisements. It’s all pervasive in general society. It’s not something that just affects you if you’re in certain cities, states or schools. It’s all over the place. You can’t escape it.”

American entities, such as the Native American Journalists Association, the National Education Association and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, have consistently stated that these racist stereotypes violate Native rights and have called for an end to the use of American Indian peoples as sports team names and logos. Harjo says, “We Native Peoples have the right of self-expression, the right of self-determination. When others come in and overlay false identities on top of us and make that the prism by which our reality is understood or seen by others, it is going counter to what we want or what we are trying to project. And it’s a form of erasure. People talk all the time about erasing people out of history. When your enemies write the history, they erase you from it. Well, this is the same thing; this is erasing you from the present and from the future.“

While Harjo thinks that all “Native” team names and logos are racist, she reserves special concern for the Washington football team name. She was a plaintiff in Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc., filed in 1992 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) to cancel the six trademark registrations of the Washington NFL football franchise. Harjo explains the meaning of the R-word and why it is a slur against Native Peoples: “The use of that name harkens back to a time when we were actually skinned by bounty hunters who turned in our skins for payment. So, you had companies, colonies and states that issued bounty proclamations for dead Indians.  And what were presented as proof of Indian kill were the bloody reds*ins. Those who close their eyes to the origin of this word are simply not dealing with the reality of the practice of skinning our people. But even if you don’t know that and don’t care about what happened then, the use of a description of someone’s skin color is wrong. And when it occurs solely in a particular area, you’re talking about invidious discrimination. You would not see a day where its corollary would be used to describe any other races or ethnicities of people.”

Every major Native American organization agrees with Harjo, including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association and the National Indian Gaming Association. Nearly all of the major civil rights groups in the country, including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights and the Anti-Defamation League, have called for the end of the use of the Washington football team name and logo. Recently, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, called on the owners of the Washington football team, to consider that their team name is “the hurtful reminder” of the long history of mistreatment of Native Peoples in the United States. 

But these racist teams names and images do more than violate the human and civil rights of Native Peoples; they destroy the emotional well-being of Native children. Harjo says, “Everything depends on self esteem. Your identity is self-esteem. And if you have people who are constantly beating down what you think you are – and saying, ‘No, you don’t think that; this is who you are’ – and constantly bombarding you with negative images and names, at some point you are just going to crack under the strain of the difference between what you are being told by the empowering relatives and people in your society and what’s being imposed on you from outside and in part from some within your society.” 

Professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and American Counseling Association, have issued statements that the use of “Native” team names and imagery is detrimental to children’s mental health and development. Experimental laboratory studies demonstrate causal effects that the presence of “Native” sports team logos results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among Native youth. Further, studies have shown that prejudice and discrimination in the form of racial slurs, racial harassment and racial bullying are associated with poor mental health among Native American people. This poor mental health comes in the form of elevated levels of depression and suicidality, and predicts increased aggression and substance abuse in Native children over time. 

Of particular concern to Harjo is the invalidation that is caused not only by society’s casual attitude to racist team names and logos, but also the Washington organization’s deliberate attempts to mislead the public in order to support its racist team name. Validation has long been held as a critical aspect of human development, and invalidation is considered a key factor in perpetuating mental health issues, such as borderline personality disorder. In order to have a sense that one is safe and secure in the world, children rely on others to confirm their basic perception of reality. To this effect, children don’t need adults to agree with them per se, but to validate that the child’s perspective makes sense and can be understood. When a child’s perceptions are negated and deemed untrue by others, it is difficult to establish strong self-concept and emotional health. And we are learning more about how invalidation may harm children. One recent study of 99 hospitalized teens examined whether invalidation, or feeling that they were not accepted or listened to in their family, predicted self-harm or suicidality at a 6-month follow-up. Results showed that high perception of family invalidation predicted a later suicidal event among boys and self-harm among girls.  

Harjo thinks that the Washington football team’s and its fans’ behavior invalidates Native children by denying known facts regarding the Washington team name and logo. She says, “The people in the Washington franchise have a history of lying about us, lying about Native Peoples.” Harjo has substantial evidence to back up this statement. Independent evaluators, such as The Washington Post, have labeled the claims made by the Washington team on its website as mostly untrue. For example, there have been multiple instances when representatives of the Washington team have claimed Native American support, only to have this claim contradicted. The claim of the Washington team owner, Daniel Snyder, that the Red Cloud School approved the use of the “R-word” was immediately denied by the Red Cloud School, which stated that it also considers the “R-word” a demeaning racial slur. Similarly, Washington team representative Mark Mosely claimed that the Alabama Coushatta Tribe was supportive of the “R-word” only to have the Alabama Coushatta Tribe promptly respond by saying that they support the NCAI efforts to oppose the Washington name. Further, when the Washington football team representatives insisted that no Native Americans protested the name in visits to Native American reservations, Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, said he spoke with Snyder last November about his displeasure with the team name. The NFL has maintained this assault on the truth, perhaps most egregiously when NFL spokesperson Adolpho Birch directly contradicted every conventional definition of the term by saying, “It’s not a slur.” 

Further, Harjo describes how the Washington team and NFL have pointedly refused to acknowledge the Native American organizations that have spoken out against the team name and logo. She says, “Talk about invalidation. They’re trying to invalidate all of our national Native organizations, claiming the National Congress of American Indians doesn’t know anything; the National Indian Education Association doesn’t know anything; the Native American Rights Fund doesn’t know anything. Pick an organization. All organizations that know anything about our peoples are saying one thing:

Get rid of all these racist stereotypes in sports. Get rid of the name of the Washington football team. And here you have this franchise that has done great harm and injury hiring PR firms to push against what we’re saying and what we’re representing. And then you have people in society who say this is a good thing, this is a wonderful thing that we call you this name, and you know it’s not, and your family knows it’s not. And there are people who are saying ignore it, let it be, just take it because, maybe if you just take it, they’ll leave you alone. It’s something in the atmosphere where things combine in the atmosphere, and at some point you just want to check out.” 

And Harjo finds many of the defenses for this racist and invalidating behavior to be absurd. For example, in response to a letter from U.S. Representative Tom Cole (Chickasaw) urging the NFL to support a name change for the Washington team, team representative Tony Wyllie said, “Don’t they have more important issues to worry about?” Harjo says, “People say, ‘Don’t you have more important things to worry about?’ But, we’re the people who are doing something about those more important things. We’re not waiting until middle age, as the Washington team owner was when he ‘discovered’ Indians -- he went to only 20 Native nations’ territories out of over 600, then implied that he knew everything about us and all our problems and all our solutions. No one who has ever asked that ‘more important things’ question has ever done anything about those ‘more important things.’ We’re the ones who raise the issues and craft solutions for a great many problems that have faced us for a long time. We are not the people who are just waking up to these problems. It’s pretty insulting for those who have only been in our presence for a hot minute to indicate that they have any answers at all or even understand anything about us or have ever done anything for my people.” 

Harjo is also not compelled by statements from the Washington team and NFL that their intent is to “honor” Native Americans. For one, this claim ignores statements from the team’s former owner, George Preston Marshall, arguably the most infamous segregationist in sports history, who said in a 1933 interview, “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name (Reds*ins).” Further, a history of racially insensitive behavior including the use of the term “scalp ’em” in the original Washington team song, and the frequent use of red face and appropriation of Native American headdresses and feathers make the claim of “honoring” Native Americans dubious at best. 

But for Harjo, these defenses don’t matter, as it is Native American Peoples who should have the ultimate say. She said, “I remember Clyde Warrior (a Ponca founder of the National Indian Youth Council) coming to my high school in Oklahoma City in 1962 and saying how you don’t ask the bully on the playground ‘Does this hurt?’ You ask the people who are being bullied. The entire defense of the Washington franchise is ‘You’re not offended, we’re honoring you, and the intent is what matters. It’s up to the offenders to decide if something is an honor.’ And we are saying no, it’s up to the offended to determine what offends and what is the nature of the offense and what should be the remedy. The federal trademark judges have ruled twice, in 1999 and 2014, that what offends is up to a substantial composite of the Native population, not of anyone else. It’s up to the people who are being bullied, not the bullies, in the same way that you wouldn’t ask the murderer how or if the murder hurt the victim. That’s not the way human rights law and policy have developed the world over.” 

Thus, she does not think that some Native people who may feel honored or who are willing to tolerate these images have the right to force others to tolerate these racist slurs and images. And part of this is related to the history of federal Indian boarding schools, which spawned these names and a small number of today’s reservation schools that adopted them. She says, “This practice of racial slurs in sports really began with the U.S. Army’s and Bureau of Indian Affairs’ boarding schools. This is a product of the horrible legacy of name-calling and emotional and physical abuse of the historic federal boarding school system. So it has bad origins. It’s bad from the get-go. In law, that’s described as ‘fruit of the rotten tree.’ So you have the federal government doing a big push to strip the Native identities of the individuals and strip the group identity – to de-Indianize, de-nationalize, de-tribalize. These kids were hostages to keep control of the strong families at home. When you are changing the identity of the child, you are also changing the identities of the families and entire nations, because these students are the ones who ultimately run the nations in the future. So what they were creating was a pan-Indian identity – it was ok to have your team called the ‘Indians,’ but it was not ok to be called by your Indian name, or to be known as someone who was a tribal person. So you had an ‘Indian’ identity – a name that was a pejorative or commonly used slur against Native Peoples. And that practice was carried over by a lot of schools that now are known as tribal schools. Even if they’re no longer run by the federal government, they’re legacy, their beginnings are still found in the federal boarding school system. These weren’t voluntary summer camp or prep schools. They were schools with corporal punishment, where the main thrust of the education was English-only/Christian-only, and anything else was beaten out of you or scrubbed out of your mouth with lye soap. It’s out of these practices that schools that are Native populated have this pan-Indian or self-berating identity today.” 

She further points out that, even if Native children get a partial identity from these team names and logos, there is still danger in having them be so closely identified with sports teams. She says, “Some years ago, the White Mountain Apache high school basketball team was winning, and the fans from the other, non-Indian side, started yelling at them and calling them other names and yelling things about casinos and ‘Why don’t you start paying taxes?’ – calling out modern stereotypes and modern mythology, as if they were factual and as if they were something that these players had anything to do with. Things became so intense that the game had to be stopped. So, those who use ‘Native’ images in sports, just remember there is always another side of the arena or stadium, whose job is to beat you, to mock your name, to mock your image – and sometimes it’s going to get pretty ugly and reflect an underlying racial animus.” 

The argument that eliminating Native team names and symbology will usher in an era of political correctness is also readily dismissed. She says, “When you hear people discuss it in the sports context, they’ll say ‘What about the Vikings?’ Well there are no more Vikings. There are Native Peoples. We are the modern evidence of our ancient continuum. The Cheyenne People are the same as we’ve always been. For a brief moment in time, we were the prototype Plains Indians that people have stuck in their mind. That’s not who we were before the horse and that’s not who we have been since ponies were outlawed by the U.S. ‘Civilization Regulations.’ Another silly question is: ‘What about the Cowboys?’ Being a cowboy is a profession. Being Native is not a profession. And sports stereotypes lead right into the Halloween costume concept where they stereotype what they think Native Peoples looked like at a certain point in history, or put on chicken feathers and ‘war paint’ and Tandy-craft, artificial buckskin-fringed outfits and scant outfits that supposedly represent Native women.” 

Moreover, she thinks that this racism actually underlies and undermines all of these other “more important” issues. Her perspective is consistent with research evidence demonstrating that the presence of “Native” team names and logos result in increased negative associations of and prejudicial attitudes towards Native Peoples among non-Natives. She says, “This one is atmospheric, it’s contextual, it’s overarching. It is the context in which all of our other problems and solutions are viewed. And I find after decades of working to develop federal policy, it’s that prism through which most of Congress views Native Peoples. Public policy simply isn’t made for mascots or cartoons. It isn’t made for peoples of a bygone era, for peoples with no personhood or nationhood, but are only characters it’s permissible to caricature. They don’t make any public policy at all for mascots. These personas are put on us so that we won’t actually be seen.” 

Harjo is ultimately optimistic based on the success her work has already achieved. She says, “Now, keep in mind that the name of the Washington franchise only occurs in a handful of schools nationwide that have Native students exclusively.  We’ve done away with over 2,000 of these sports stereotypes since we started working intensely on these issues in the 1960s. We’ve won societally. We’ve made a societal sea-change. That’s the good news in all of this. The bad news is that we still have over 900 to go and that among those are all the pro sports teams. And included in that 900 are the ones on Native lands.”

For Harjo, it is crucial that people not only understand this issue but take action. She says, “Some people do it because they think that you have to buy the whole package; that they can’t show loyalty to the team if they are disloyal to the name. You can do two things at once. You can love the team and hate the name. And for the people who say, ‘I can’t change it, so I’ll go along with it,’ that is more than a lack of integrity – that is saying, ‘I recognize the problem, I recognize it’s hurting you, I can’t do anything about it because I’m only one person, so I’m going to keep on hurting you; I’m going to contribute to the greater hurt that’s being caused for you and your people.’ That’s a person who helps in the demise of my grandchildren. And that is a dangerous person in society – someone who will go along with something even though they know it’s a bad thing to do.” 

Harjo’s mission is straightforward: “I want to save the life of at least one kid. That’s worth my life’s work. If it’s more than one, great. If it’s not one, I better work harder.” 

Maybe we all need to work harder.

This article is part of a special series in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His thoughts are his own. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl