Native Women Score Wins over Demeaning Images

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Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo has been fighting to get sports team names and mascots that exploit Native American imagery dropped.

TULSA, Okla. (WOMENSENEWS)–For Native American women such as Johnnie Jae, the push is on to banish mascots and other demeaning imagery of Native people.

Jae and others will be supporting Native American parents later this month in Oklahoma as they try to uphold a recent decision by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board to drop the Redskins mascot at one of the high schools. The Oklahoma City school district is the latest to ban the mascot. In California, a lawmaker recently proposed legislation that would force four schools in the state to drop the mascot.

These moves come on the heels of a June decision of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceling the trademark of the Washington, D.C., Redskins, a member of the National Football League, saying the term redskins was disparaging to Native Americans.

The ruling does not force the team to change the name, but it could potentially cost the team millions of dollars in lost revenue from merchandise and sponsorship deals.

The largely symbolic win for the Native American plaintiffs followed decades of activism by women such as Jae, who lives in Lawton, Okla. She is using today her social media skills and knowledge to bring greater awareness to the harmful effects of such imagery.

Jae sees a connection between the dire statistics about violence against women in her community and the mascots issue. And fighting one issue is a way of fighting another; she sees the struggles as intertwined.

“All the issues that we face in our Native communities are interrelated to the dehumanization of Native people that has occurred through the misappropriation [of] our identities and imagery,” said Jae, who is Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw.

Statistics for violence against Native American women are grim: 1-in-3 report being raped in their lifetime, according to the Department of Justice; overall, 1-in-6 Native American women in the U.S. has reported being a victim of rape or attempted rape. Native American women are also 2.5 times more likely to suffer sexual assault compared to all other U.S. women. And 67 percent of Native American women say their perpetrator was a non-Native American man, according to one U.S. Department of Justice-funded report.

Rallies, Protests

Jae, a founding member of the nonprofit organization Not Your Mascots, has helped lead rallies and protests in person and through Twitter using the hashtags #NotYourMascot and #NoHonorinRacism.

In November last year, more than 5,000 people rallied in Minneapolis to protest the Washington Redskins team name. The message is simple: Native Americans are people and not mascots.

“Being a Native woman absolutely shapes my resolve to do what I can to help eliminate Native mascots and stereotypes,” Jae said in an email interview. “I have nieces and nephews that play sports and they shouldn’t have to contend with Native mascots or see rival teams and fans mocking who they are as indigenous people.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, 69, a role model for the 34-year-old Jae in this struggle, remembers listening to Clyde Warrior speak to her senior class in 1962 in Oklahoma City.

Warrior, a famous fancy dancer in powwows in Oklahoma, was a co-founder of the National Indian Youth Council. He organized against the University of Oklahoma’s mascot known as Little Red, a Native American who wore a war bonnet. Little Red was banished in 1970, becoming “the first ‘Indian’ mascot to fall in the country,” Harjo said in an email interview.

“[Warrior] informed and energized my position against the race-based names, symbols, images, logos and behaviors in sports,” said Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee and lives in Washington, D.C.

She would soon take up the fight, working to educate and persuade high schools, colleges and professional sports teams to drop team names and mascots that exploited Native American imagery in a way that she and others consider derogatory.

1992 Lawsuit

In 1992, Harjo and six other co-plaintiffs filed suit with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board challenging the Washington Redskins team name.

“We all thought we’d waited long enough and that we did not want to pass this burden along to our children and grandchildren,” said Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization based in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama honored Harjo for her work with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in the fall of 2014.

The three-judge panel sided with the plaintiffs, but a federal district court judge ruled that Harjo and the others had waited too long after they turned 18 to bring the case. Harjo then organized a suit with younger Native Americans as plaintiffs. The suit resulted in the June ruling cancelling the trademark. Team owner Dan Snyder, however, has said he will never change the team name and has appealed the ruling.

Though the number of amateur athletic programs across the country using Native American mascots has fallen in the last 45 years to 1,000, down from 2,000, Harjo said, professional teams have so far refused to change.

Harjo doesn’t believe any of the teams will change without litigation, but she is confident that when change does come, it will come quickly.

Jae, who said she looks up to Harjo in the continuing activism against racist mascots and imagery, said women bring a unique perspective to the fight.

“We have keen organizational skills, but more important, there are no beings on this planet or any other more tenacious than Native women,” she said.

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