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5/7/2013 9:56:00 AM
In debate over Redskins name, is the 'R-word' for racism or respect?
Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo woman from Arizona who is leading a fight to deny the Washington Redskins a trademark in the team name, said she does not agree with a Navajo high school’s use of the name for its teams. Photo/Michelle Peirano
Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo woman from Arizona who is leading a fight to deny the Washington Redskins a trademark in the team name, said she does not agree with a Navajo high school’s use of the name for its teams. Photo/Michelle Peirano
The logo of the St. Johns High School Redskins, one of two high schools in the state, with Red Mesa High School, with that nickname for their athletic teams. While some are offended by the name, officials at both schools defend it. Photo/St. Johns High School
The logo of the St. Johns High School Redskins, one of two high schools in the state, with Red Mesa High School, with that nickname for their athletic teams. While some are offended by the name, officials at both schools defend it. Photo/St. Johns High School
Michelle Peirano
Cronkite News

WASHINGTON - Amanda Blackhorse is outraged when she thinks of the Washington Redskins, a team whose name and mascot are deeply offensive to the Navajo woman.

But she is also saddened at the thought that in the Navajo Nation, Red Mesa High School uses the name for its sports teams as well.

"I just don't agree with it," Blackhorse said. "It really limits the way people see us."

Where Blackhorse sees a slur and grounds for a legal fight that some have called the last "civil rights battle," Red Mesa High School Principal Don Lawrence sees another side to the debate. Lawrence said the name Redskins is not really a problem "in the heart of the Navajo Nation."

At Red Mesa, which promotes technology and English as well as the Navajo tongue and traditional ways of life, the mascot represents heritage and independence to students and is not tainted by attitudes outside the community, he said.

"They came from a strong nation with its language and culture still intact," Lawrence said. "Those are the things that make us strong."

Red Mesa was one of two Arizona high schools - the other was St. Johns - among the 70 high school "Redskins" around the country that were cited by the Washington team in March in defense of its name.

That name is coming under renewed attack by Blackhorse, a Kayenta resident, and others who recently petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to revoke the Washington team's trademark on the name. Critics say the name violates a patent office rule that bars trademarks on "disparaging" language.

It is the latest front in a decades-long fight against the name that some say is so offensive they refuse to even speak it.

Suzan Harjo has been fighting the Washington team for two decades over its use of the "R-word," which she calls the worst slur toward American Indians.

Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne tribe in Oklahoma, remembers regularly being called names because of her skin color while growing up in the 1950s.

"We were called a lot of names, including the name of the Washington football team, and that's the worst thing you could be called," Harjo said.

"Out of nowhere, interrupting your daydreams, would come this word being thrown at you. I just grew up hating it," she said.

Harjo said the Red Mesa School District's acceptance of the term is "the exception, not the rule." Although there is a difference between calling yourself a name and being called a name from the outside, American Indian use of the word does not "sterilize" it, she said.

"It doesn't change the word, it doesn't change its impact, and it doesn't change its context," Harjo said.

But Navajo defenders of the name say context is everything.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, said that not everyone has had a negative experience with the word, and if a Navajo person wants to use the word or root for the NFL team, they should.

"We've always been proud of a lot of individuality," Zah said. "If they (Navajo) want to assert themselves as Redskins and the community is fine with that, they are going to continue."

He agreed that use of the word outside American Indian communities should be avoided because it could perpetuate "the legacy of negativity that the term has created."

"A lot of people do have a relationship with that word. For them, it's not a positive relationship," Zah said.

Lawrence said tension over the word on the East Coast - where students at a New York school voted in February to drop the name - does not translate to the Southwest, where tribes enjoy a high level of "isolation and freedom."

He said students at Red Mesa chose the team name as a reflection of their pride.

At St. Johns High School, Principal Roger Heap said he cannot remember ever hearing a complaint about the team's name or mascot shown in full feathered headdress. Although the Apache County community is predominantly white, the school has some American Indian students and athletes the school is very proud of, Heap said.

"The main thing I know about how our students feel is that I don't recall any of them ever complaining about it or asking for a change," he said.

Neither Harjo nor Blackhorse puts much stock in such arguments. Harjo said it sometimes takes generations for a community to wake up and change what it is doing.

"It's just a matter of time. In every effort there is a tipping point," Harjo said. "You never know what affects people and what makes the change."

She and Blackhorse agree that the national conversation over the Washington team could have a domino effect, encouraging smaller communities to alter their behavior.

In addition to the trademark challenge, a bill in Congress would alter trademark law to specifically define "Redskins" as disparaging. Another group has suggested that the Federal Communications Commission could have grounds to refuse renewing the licenses of broadcasters that use the team's "obscene" name.

Blackhorse said she hopes to make teams everywhere give up the name. For now, however, she has her sights set on the Washington Redskins.

"We can work on Red Mesa and trying to eliminate that, but that's not going to get rid of the federal trademark," Blackhorse said. "The school is important as well, but things need to happen one at a time."


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Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2013
Article comment by: Nabahe Keediniihii

People that bring about attention or issues are certainly Out There Looking on behalf of our interest especially as indigenous communities. It is never a waste of time but there are other frequent pop culture that are a waste of time, those that are not necessary while our indigenous pride, integrity and cultures are threatened. Also, I thought the word "Redskin" originated from the US Army and Indian Wars when actual human skin from killed Indians were used to decorated bridles, and that according to the soldiers, it had "a very attractive bright-red appearance." Should I go on? What about the word "Navajos?" What was the original Spanish meaning?

Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2013
Article comment by: ron thomas

waste of time! why not focus on the youth!, get the family sober!, begin focus on education!... energy is being wasted on stupid antics to draw attention that gets you no where... duh!

Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2013
Article comment by: Erwin Roan

Please stop wasting your time and my time. There are more important matters at hand. For instance, why are you letting your chapter officials get away with stealing thousands of dollars for personal use? Why are you letting Navajo Generating Station shut down when many of the Navajo Nation`s social programs need funding to stay afloat and offer these important services?

Why Ms. Blackhorse? I should think that the other colors of horses would be offended that you favor only the "black" horses. Why?

In conclusion, the St. Johns High School in St. Johns, AZ mascot is the RESKIN where many native american students attend and are very pround to be called the REDSKINS.


Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Article comment by: brown man

it is to be commended that she is targeting all teams, even our navajo teams to not use the redskin name. if natives understood why redskins was used to describe native people then i think you would not want to be called a redskin no matter which team you like. there are many issues but this is her cause and who are we to say it is not important. i also believe that you should continue with what you think is the right thing to do.

Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Article comment by: Ella Bowen

I think it is totally stupid that someone is outraged over the name "Redskins" for the football team. People are just out there looking for things to bring to everyone's attention. I'm full blood Native American, it doesn't bother me one bit. The tribal people who are having issues over this should just get over it and move on to more important matters. What a waste of time.



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