Meet the Native American grandmother who just beat the Redskins
June 18, 2014
The woman who was the driving force behind the cases that led the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office to cancel the federal trademarks for the Washington Redskins Wednesday is 69-year-old grandmother and longtime Native American activist, Suzan Harjo.
"Suzan has been fighting this since 1992. Native American people have been fighting this since 1972. … The reason it has come up recently is because Suzan has worked really hard to bring this in the public eye," Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five Native American plaintiffs in the case filed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, told Business Insider.
"She’s just a tremendous woman. She’s a strong Native American woman, and I’m so happy to have met her and to have been a part of all this because this is what we need to do," Blackhorse added.
Harjo was born in Oklahoma and is of Cheyenne and Muscogee ancestry. In a conversation with Business Insider shortly after the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office’s decision was announced, Harjo said she became involved with political activism while she was still in school.
"One time when I was in school, I was selected by our Cheyenne leadership to come to Washington with them. And when my family asked, ‘Why do you want her to go?’ They said, ‘Because she talks good and she ain’t afraid of nobody.’ So, those became resumé items," Harjo recounted.
In high school, Harjo was inspired to fight against what she describes as “racist stereotypes in American sports” because of an Oklahoma Native American activist named Clyde Warrior.
"He made a personal cause of getting rid of the mascot ‘Little Red’ at the University of Oklahoma," Harjo said of Warrior. "Most of the Indians in Oklahoma couldn’t stand ‘Little Red’ and we called him the dancing idiot. He was always portrayed by a white guy in Indian costume."
Little Red was eventually banished by University of Oklahoma President J. Herbert Hollomon in 1970.
According to Harjo, activists involved in the effort to eliminate Native American mascots always viewed the Washington Redskins football team as “the worst” offender.
"No matter where you went or what was the mascot fight of the moment in any locale, everyone would always say, ‘And the worst one is right there in the nation’s capital, the Washington team name,’" said Harjo. "It was the worst one, everyone pointed to it."
Harjo moved to Washington D.C. in 1974. Soon after her arrival, she said someone gave her and her husband tickets to a Redskins game.
"We’re football fans and we can separate the team name from the game, so we went to a game. And we didn’t stay for the game at all, because people started — someone said something, ‘Are you this or that?’ So, we started to answer, then people started like pulling our hair," explained Harjo. "And they would call us that name and it was very weird for us. So, we just left and never went to another game."
Harjo said her experience at the Redskins game “solidified” her opposition to stereotypical Native American sports mascots.
"That just solidified it for me because it wasn’t just namecalling, it was what the name had promoted," Harjo said. "That’s the example of what objectification is. You strip the person of humanity and they’re just an object and you can do anything.
You can pull their hair! I wouldn’t even touch someone else!”
Harjo, who eventually became the first president of the Morning Star Institute, a D.C.-based national Native rights organization, began looking for ways to change the Redskins name. She said she settled on the strategy of trying to get the team’s trademark canceled after she was contacted by a Minneapolis lawyer named Stephen Baird in 1992.
According to Harjo, Baird was working on a law review article about his theory the Redskins’ trademark could be canceled based on a section of the U.S. Trademark Act prohibiting trademarks that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” Harjo said Baird heard she had “looked at all sorts of causes of action, and not settled on any of them, and had been talking with various attorneys about ways that we could approach this.” When Baird called her, Harjo said his “first question” was why she rejected using the Patent and Trademark Office as a forum to fight the Redskins name.
"And I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’" Harjo remembered with a laugh. "Once he explained his theory, I was so intrigued by his theory. It was very different from the kinds of things we’d been looking at. … It didn’t interfere with free speech, it wasn’t even forcing a decision. What it’s saying is, ‘Here’s what the federal government will or will not sanction.’ Because, it’s the federal government’s role to grant the exclusive privilege of making money off this name."