Something That Means Justice: An Interview with Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo
Source: Suzan Shown Harjo

When I called up Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) for our article, “The Shame of Stereotypes as Team Mascots,” I had no idea I was in for one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever conducted. I was quite familiar with her work on getting the Washington NFL football team to move away from using the R-word as its name and mascot: She’s the woman who organized the two high-profile cases that challenged the US Patent and Trademark Office to revoke the team’s patents on the basis that the R-word is “disparaging to Native Americans” (Harjo et al. v. Pro Football, Inc. and Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc.)

But she is also a poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect sacred places and recover more than one million acres of land. She has developed key laws in five decades to promote and protect Native nations, including the act that established the National Museum of the American Indian. She served in the Carter administration, was principal author of the 1979 President’s Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom, and was a member of the Obama ’08 and Obama ’12 Native American Policy Committee. And she has a breadth of important knowledge of Native American heritage and history that reaches across tribal nations.

After our fascinating two-hour conversation, I knew I had to share more of it than I could fit into the mascot article with our Green American readers. 

—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, Green America editor-in-chief

Green American/Tracy Fernandez Rysavy: You’ve been working on getting the Washington football team and others like it to eliminate stereotyped names and mascots long before this issue started getting so much press. What drove your passion to start this work?

Suzan Shown Harjo: In 1963, a group was started in Oklahoma, where I’m from, called National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). The Council’s Oklahoma representative, Clyde Warrior, who is Ponca, was a college student who was well-known as a fancy dancer in the pow-wow circuit. He used his fame and organizing ability to call attention to Little Red, the long-time mascot of the University of Oklahoma. 

The mascot was a live person who put on what was supposed to be an Indian outfit and did what was supposed to be an Indian dance. Everyone called him “the dancing idiot.” It was always a white guy. 

But at one point, the administrators asked Native students to dress up as Little Red. Two did, but one went to a game in the outfit and didn’t dance at halftime. People started yelling, and it turned racially ugly really quickly. That was a huge lesson for everyone. 

NIYC had demonstrations on the University of Oklahoma campus and a sit-in in the chancellor’s office. All of the committees across campus, like the Women’s Committee, the Chicano Committee, and the Black Student Union, had endorsed getting rid of Little Red. That coalition of people of color and women was being replicated on other campuses [with stereotyped mascots], but OU led the way. NIYC also organized at Stanford, Dartmouth, Syracuse, Marquette.

Then, in 1970, the OU chancellor made the decision to drop the name and retire Little Red. That was the first mascot to fall in American sports. In ’72 and ’74, Native Peoples eliminated the Stanford and Dartmouth Indians. In ’76, Syracuse’s Saltine Warrior. 

In between, lots of elementary, middle, and high schools and colleges and universities were also dropping their stereotypical names and images. By our count, there were a little over 3,000 racial stereotypes across America when we started. Today there are just over 900. We collectively have eliminated over two-thirds of these stereotypes from the American sports scene. 

Each time we organized, we would bring up the Washington football team, saying, no matter where the rally was, “And the worst one is in Washington, DC, in the nation’s capital.” Because it seemed like the federal government was endorsing the R-word, and it was the national team calling us this.

When my husband and I moved to Washington at end of 1974, he was given tickets to a Washington football game. So we went. We’d been fans of the University of Oklahoma team, so we had a long history of going to games and averting our eyes from Little Red! 

At the game, someone said to the person sitting next to them, “I think they’re R-words,” using the name of the team. 

I said, “No, I’m Cheyenne and Muscogee, and he’s Muscogee.” 

Then someone else said a similar thing. Not to us, just about us. And then a person sitting next to us started tugging our hair, kind of petting it, and saying, “Look! Here’s this R-word hair.”

We had to get up and leave. That is the real effect of objectification, where you take away a person’s humanity and are just touching them in inappropriate ways. I would never, in a million years, sit next to someone and touch their hair. You just don’t do that.

I also hate the name because of its heinous origins. It reminds us of the bounty days, when bounty hunters would take in the bloody red skins of killed Indians as proof of an Indian kill. 

In the bounties, they would say “scalps,” but what they meant was genitalia. They were paid on a sliding scale—so much for a man, so much for a woman, so much for a child. The only way you’d know gender or age was from the genitalia.

[The bounty hunters] were doing things that hadn’t ever been done by Native people in wartime—beheadings and skinnings that were so unusual that in every place I’ve ever been in Indian Country, people talk about it. 

When I was working from 1967 and on repatriation issues—which means the return of dead relatives and sacred objects and cultural patrimony to Native tribes from educational institutions and federal agencies—the People, everywhere we went, talked about a history of fearing they would be skinned, people having a relative skinned, of coming upon trappers who had Indian skins. 

This is the kind of history that comes to mind for Native peoples about the R-word name. This is the worst word that we can be called in the English language. This is the N-word for us. There’s nothing even comparable that’s used for any other peoples.


Green American/Tracy: That quite powerfully contradicts the argument that Native Americans call themselves the R-word, so it’s okay to use it for the team.

Suzan: The first documented use of this word in the English language is of a white person who said an Indian had approached him and had used that word to describe Native people. Of course! It was a common word in English. Native people, especially those in the east, [where this usage occurred], would not have done that [in their own language], because Indians were getting skinned! 

In no Native language that I know does a person introduce themselves by their skin color. It just doesn’t happen. The closest is the Muscogee word Este-cat’e, which means “red person” (or blood relative). But it’s person (not a body part, like skin). 
There are others where a similar word means “relative”—as in establishing kinship with a real relative or with a person you’re not actually related to but with whom you want to get off on a good footing. 

It’s always red “person” or “man”. It’s not the color of your skin or any attribute. It’s who you are, your essence. You’re announcing your humanity.

Green American/Tracy: Another common argument is that the 
R-word name and others like it “honor” Native Americans. How do we respond to that?

Suzan: I often hear, “What about the [Dallas] Cowboys?” 
That’s a profession. Native people are not a profession. 
“What about the Fighting Irish?”
It’d be a different situation in Ireland. You don’t see those kinds of [team names] in Ireland. 

At Notre Dame at one point, the main football players were all Irish, so the Fighting Irish name is closer to self-identification, if you will. I still don’t think it’s right, but that’s up to them. Their name arose at a time when the Irish weren’t treated well and had all sorts of slurs used against them. They were the new immigrants who were being berated. 

Here’s what a name like the Fighting Irish breeds: Marquette played them in the 1990s and sent a person dressed as what was supposed to be a drunken leprechaun onto the field. Notre Dame demanded an apology. Leprechauns aren’t real, but they’re so closely 
associated with the Irish that it was meant as a slur.

Green American/Tracy: You’ve also said that these team names come from the efforts to de-culturalize Native American tribes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Suzan: These names arose from the federal Indian boarding schools where the Bureau of Indian Affairs was trying to de-tribalize and de-culturalize the Native peoples. So they were trying to create pan-Indian events and pan-Indian personae. 

At the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, [a model school for assimilating students into Euro-American culture], they created a plains Indian look with a headdress [for the school mascot], because the head of Carlisle, Richard Henry Pratt, had fought plains Indians under General Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer. 

This is how you had these names arise in schools, during the time when Native people were being confined to reservations. Indians were not being permitted to go to our sacred places and usual hunting, fishing, and gathering places; not permitted to visit other Indians; not permitted to ride ponies; not permitted to dance. These things were criminalized under the Civilization Regulations from 1880s, which were not withdrawn until 1930s. 

The Civilization Regulations outlawed the Sun Dance and traditional giveaway ceremonies for death and birth and marriage. They cut Native people off from the usual places where they got their buffalo, elk, salmon, and other high-protein foods, and confined them to reservations so they had to substitute flour, grains, sugar, rancid meats for this great diet. 

The estimate is that there were about 50 million in all of North America [before the Civilization Regulations]. By 1900, the count of Native people in the US was 250,000 people. That’s so low. 

It was out of this history—and while the Civilization Regs were still in force —that the name of the Washington team arose.

Green American/Tracy: The shocking thing is how little you hear about this in school. I think we’re taught that massacres of Native people like the one at Wounded Knee were isolated events.

Suzan: Every single Native nation had a Wounded Knee. At least one. Almost everyone had a Long Walk or a Trail of Tears.

The people who raised me raised me to do what I’m doing. Everyone said, “Don’t believe anything you read. Believe what you hear. Believe what people are saying, the people who know what has happened. Everyone has a piece of oral history, a piece of the way things really happened.”

The more I do research—and I’ve done a lot of it—the more I really delve into the written documents, the more I see the accuracy of Native American oral history and how the things that I was told about the Sand Creek Massacre and Washita and Little Bighorn are true. 

People tell me, “This happened to me. I saw this happen to this person who was related to us in this way, and she was killed.” 

You hear about very fine people who were just killed. If you grow up with this oral history—with an understanding of all the people we were deprived of, all the great minds or the good spirits or the good-hearted people, or knowledgable people, or the people who could really apply medicine...they were just gone in an instant by a bayonet wound or a gunshot, or they were left to die on the side of the road during those long walks, the trails of tears—you can’t hear this history being passed down without being affected by the sense of loss, by the sense of “what if”. 

All of these things come to mind when we’re mocked in public, and when we have these reminders of this horrible history right in our faces.

Green American/Tracy: Right, or the ones who say there are more important things to worry about.

Suzan: We’re the ones who are also doing those bigger things! But [changing stereotyped team names and mascots] is also one of the bigger things, because it’s foundational and atmospheric and contextual. It sends a signal to our kids that we’re not going to take this anymore. I don’t want my kids and grandkids asking me, “Why didn’t you try to do anything about it?” 

I answer to them. I answer to my elders, to the memory of my elders and what they experienced, and to the coming generations and the people of my own time. 
It’s always about educating people so they’ll understand what happened and try to do something in the modern time that means justice, no matter how big or small. That’s what we’re trying to do with our lawsuit. It won’t be all the justice that’s due, but it’ll be something. 

[The Washington football team mascot] is a symbol, and symbols are important. Symbols come out of attitudes and create attitudes and lead to actions. If people begin to understand that, then they understand the importance of these symbols and what it means to the people who are the target population.

Green American/Tracy: Do you think you’ll see that justice when it comes to the Washington team?

Suzan: I have no doubt that this name is going to change. I don’t know when. But I have no doubt it’ll happen.

From Green American Magazine Issue