Source: USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Amanda Blackhorse has never met Daniel Snyder, but she’s thought about what she might say to him if she ever does.
“I’d ask him, ‘Would you dare call me a redskin, right here, to my face?’ ” she says. “And I suspect that, no, he would not do that.”
Blackhorse is Navajo and a psychiatric social worker and the named plaintiff in Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., a federal suit in which a group of five American Indians seek to strip the federal trademark rights from the football team Snyder owns.
Blackhorse and her fellow petitioners say the term redskin is a racial slur and that the National Football League franchise in Washington that has long used it as its name should not have federal protection for a trademark that disparages. Team attorneys say the name is meant to honor American Indians, not disparage them. And Snyder tells USA TODAY Sports that he will never change the name — he even suggested NEVER in all caps.
The familiar arguments are fundamentally the same as in Harjo et al v. Pro-Football Inc., a trademark suit filed in 1992 that wound its way through the courts for 17 years. Suzan Shown Harjo and six petitioners won that case before the trademark board in 1999 but lost on appeal, largely on a technical argument that they had waited too long to assert their rights.
And so Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee, sought younger plaintiffs to carry the fight forward. She found six, some as young as 18 when the second suit was filed, in 2006 (one of them later dropped out). Blackhorse, then 24, was the oldest.
“The other side says I recruited her,” Harjo says. “Of course I recruited her. I recruited them all. They really must think we’re stupid or inept. Everyone recruits. NFL franchises recruit. The Army recruits. Schools recruit. Businesses recruit. It just doesn’t make any sense that we wouldn’t do that.”
This is the story of two women — one younger, one older — who are fighting the same fight. Blackhorse, 31, works at Arizona State Hospital and next month plans to move back to the Navajo reservation where she grew up to be a social worker. Harjo, 68 next month, is an Indian rights advocate and president of the Washington-based Morning Star Institute, though such shorthand leaves out many of her other titles, including poet, writer, lecturer and grandmother.
Each is the named plaintiff in linked legal cases against one of the most prominent franchises in the nation’s most popular sports league. Each shares a willingness to stand up for what they believe is right, even if it makes them a target of public ridicule.
The temptation is to say that Harjo is passing the torch to a new generation. But Harjo will have none of that.
“That’s so white,” she says, laughing. “It really is. Traditionally, we are tribal societies. Our leaders are elders. Our leaders are adults. We don’t put that on our children and on our grandchildren. They have other roles and serve other functions.
“That’s one reason it was such an affront for that kind of ruling, to say that we just waited too long. The implication was that we were just too old. It turns our traditional world upside down to place that kind of burden on young people.”
Blackhorse appeared in March before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which is part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A ruling could come at any time or be months away. No matter how it is decided, appeals are likely, and the case could go on for years, as it did the first time.
Something in the language of one of the court rulings issued along the way in the first case caught Harjo’s eye.
“What it said was really interesting,” she says. “It said presumably there will always be Native Americans born, and presumably some will always find the name objectionable. And does laches run against them?”
Laches is the legal term for the argument that Harjo and her fellow plaintiffs waited too long to act. Harjo began work on organizing a second case with younger plaintiffs in 2005, long before her case officially ended in 2009, when the Supreme Court declined to review it.
‘Human beings, not mascots’
The issue of Indian mascots in sports has been around for decades. Hundreds of college and high school teams have changed their team names over the years, but professional teams have been less willing to do that. Blackhorse didn’t think much about it growing up in Arizona.
“I grew up without a lot of exposure to the outside world,” she says. “I lived in this little bitty world onto itself on the Navajo reservation.”
She was a student at the University of Kansas in 2005 when she joined a group called Not in Our Honor that planned to protest the use of Indian nicknames outside Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium before a game between the Chiefs and the Washington team on Oct. 16 of that year.
“We assembled peacefully and we carried signs,” Blackhorse says. “We carried flags for the tribes we represented, to show that we are proud people and very diverse, from many different tribes. We wanted to show that we are human beings, not mascots.”
Some fans walking to the stadium did not care for that message.
“They yelled at us, ‘Get over it.’ And, ‘Go back to your reservation.’ And all the stereotypical things that we are all alcoholics: ‘Why don’t you go get drunk?’ And they shouted so many profanities that I won’t repeat.”
Blackhorse began the day as a student protester. By day’s end, she felt more like an activist for life.
“I got to see firsthand how our culture was being mocked,” she says. “So many fans were wearing war paint and feathers and they were whooping and hollering. Some of them got belligerent and angry with us. They threw beer at us. That’s not OK. I was afraid for my safety.”
By chance, that protest came during the time when Harjo was looking for young plaintiffs. One of Harjo’s recruiting calls was to Rhonda LeValdo, who is Acoma Pueblo and who’d helped organize the protest. LeValdo, now president of the Native American Journalists Association, passed along Blackhorse’s name to Harjo.
“I talked with Amanda and thought she was just marvelous,” Harjo says.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. First, Harjo advised Blackhorse that she shouldn’t sign on if her feelings are easily hurt, since she would almost certainly be vilified by football fans and others on talk radio and in the comments sections of online news stories.
“I took that as my duty,” Harjo says. “I talked with her very seriously about the kinds of things she might encounter through no fault of her own. It is a hard thing to separate — yourself as a target and yourself as yourself. I talked to her, and all the petitioners, about that.”
Blackhorse signed on. She felt she owed it to her elders, who started the case, and future generations, including her daughter, who was 2 at the time. Now she has two daughters, 10 and 6.
“Here was a chance to rid this world of this derogatory name,” Blackhorse says. “It is a racist name that has no business being utilized, let alone trademarked.”
Team stands firm
Daniel Snyder bought the Washington pro football team in 1999, the year that the trademark board originally ruled against his team.
Even if his team ultimately loses trademark protection on this go-round, it would not be required to change its name. But its trademarks would no longer enjoy the federal protection that prevents others from slapping team logos on unofficial merchandise, which could potentially cost him a great deal of money.
Snyder does not often speak publicly about the case. He talked to USA TODAY Sports about it very briefly this week, following an interview with him and his wife Tanya about her selection as mother of the year by the American Cancer Society.
“We will never change the name of the team,” Snyder said. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
But what if his team loses the trademark case? Would he not consider changing the name even then?
“We’ll never change it,” Snyder said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
And what of the question Blackhorse wanted to ask if she ever met him? Would Snyder dare call her a redskin to her face?
“I think the best way is to just not comment on that type of stuff,” Snyder said. “I don’t know her.”
Blackhorse says she is not surprised at Snyder’s answer.
“If it was appropriate to call me that, he’d comment,” she says. “It must make him uncomfortable to talk about it, and it should make him uncomfortable.
“He’s right. He doesn’t know me, or my people. And if he did, he would not use that name.”