What’s in a name? Plenty

Suzan Shown Harjo says most Native Americans “don't want to be used as sports ma

Suzan Shown Harjo says most Native Americans “don't want to be used as sports mascots.”

Her hometown Washington Redskins haven’t yet backed down, but Suzan Shown Harjo says Native American activists are, on the whole, winning their war against sports teams that use Native American mascots.

Her proof? “In 1970, there were more than 3,000 Native American references used in sports,” says Harjo, a Washington, D.C.-based Native American rights advocate, journalist and poet. Today, there are fewer than 1,100.

“I feel great about that. We’re talking about having pushed along the maturation of American culture in just 30 years—that’s huge. Will it take 50 years for the whole thing to change? Maybe. But that’s pretty short in the overall scheme of things.”

Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, will bring her Native American-rights message—and her long-running contention that Native Americans should not be used as sports mascots—to Penn Nov. 18. She is the inaugural speaker in a yearlong, four-part seminar, “Dialogues Across Indian Country,” and will speak at the Penn Museum at 4 p.m. The program is free and open to the public.

“Only the Native American people can decide who is a Native American,” says Harjo, who is also president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native- rights organization. “Anyone who wants to be a sports mascot can. But most of us native people don’t want to be used as sports mascots. So there shouldn’t be any.”

Harjo has been working toward that goal for years, and remains locked in an ongoing legal battle with her hometown Redskins that she hopes will eventually force the team to change its name. Though Harjo and her supporters won their case before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1999, the ruling was overturned by a federal judge in 2003. The case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the suit, the plaintiffs contend the name “Redskins”is demeaning and derogatory, and should be changed.

“Those of us who brought the suit just thought enough was enough,” Harjo says. “We didn’t want to pass along that legacy to any other generation. We tried to talk, but [the Redskins] wouldn’t talk to us. In fact, they absolutely refused to talk with us.”

While university athletics departments across the country have been willing to do away with Native American references—St. John’s University in New York changed its “Redmen” moniker to “Red Storm” and Miami University of Ohio dropped “Redskins” in favor of “RedHawks,” for instance—professional teams have not been open to the idea. Teams such as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have also been attacked by Native American activists.

“Educational sports has been willing to change, and pro sports has not been willing to change, because one is about education and one is about money, period,” she says. Harjo says her talk will also address a recent study released by Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication that found 90 percent of Native Americans are not bothered by the use of Native American mascots in sports. “It just doesn’t stack up,” says Harjo.

The “Dialogues Across Indian Country” seminar will draw upon the work of various anthropologists, educators, historians and others to explore a variety of issues related to Native American culture. Three more programs will be scheduled for this fall and spring.

Suzan Shown Harjo will speak at Penn Museum at 4 p.m. on Nov. 18 as part of the “Dialogues Across Indian Country” seminar. For more information, call 215-898-4000 or go to www.museum.upenn.edu/new/events/calendar.php.

Originally published on November 18, 2004