Redskins Redux

Indian Country Today reports that the litigants in the suit to force The Washington Redskins football team to change its name have decided to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. They filed a writ of certiorari petition with the court on Sept. 14.

Readers of this blog will recall that I first wrote about the case, and the general issue of Indian-named teams and mascots in The Honor of the Mascot back in June. A somewhat different version appeared as a guest post at The League of Ordinary Gentleman.

The contention of the plaintiff’s – clear, I think, to all but those resistant to recognizing a harsh truth about American history – is that the Redskins name is racist, which trademark law prohibits. Plaintiffs’ loss at the appellate level was based on statute of limitations grounds for filing the suit. I responded briefly to those grounds in the comments to the League version of the post, a response that was not legal in nature, but instead historical and moral. Of course, with the entire legal basis for dealing with Native Americans originating in the Supreme Court’s explicitly racist 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision (an effective historical equivalent for Native Americans to the Dred Scott decision for African-Americans) – still unrevised by the Court and informally, supportively cited in conversation by Justice Antonin Scalia as recently as this past April (see the League post) – fundamental arguments against U.S. policy vis-à-vis Native Americans should not be legal, but historical and moral.

Suzan Shown Harjo

Most well known among the plaintiffs is Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian who heads Washington D.C.’s Morning Star Institute, an organization dedicated to “Native People’s traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion and research.” Included among these areas of the institute’s focus is protecting, preserving and restoring Native sacred grounds and spaces.

In that June post, I referenced an ESPN online editorial reflecting a typical lack of sympathy among many sports fans for the plaintiffs’ position and on the entire issue of team names and mascots. Interestingly, on another occasion, a supportive ESPN hosted Harjo in an online chat session about the subject with fans. The fan comments, as they can be, were revelatory if not necessarily instructive, and Harjo acquitted herself with remarkable grace and aplomb. Among the encouragingly supportive comments and the rankly boobish, there were some highlights. A couple of chatters offered this common response:

Harry: Don’t you think that this is a pretty petty thing to be nagging about? Aren’t there bigger issues out there in the world today than name-calling?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Most of the people who ask that question don’t do anything about our big issues. The Native American parties to our lawsuit are the ones who are doing something about the big issues, and this is one of them, because it is contextual, atmospheric — it affects federal Indian law because, for one thing, policymakers don’t make good policy for cartoons or for people who are used for others’ sport.

The questioner here is employing the either/or fallacy, the mistake in reasoning that suggests only one of two options is available – exclusive of each and any other – when there are, in fact, multiple, possibly non-exclusive options. Pursuing improvements in Native health and education, for instance, in no way precludes, also, attempts to eliminate government-supported racist iconography. Pursing the latter does not preclude the former. We can do more than one thing at a time. And, as Harjo astutely points out, there is a profound “contextual, atmospheric” element – the one that leads most Americans to be generally culturally, historically and morally unconscious in the matter of the country’s history with, and relation to, Native Americans. In this next question and answer, Harjo follows up on that point perfectly.

Noah Hurwitz: I’m alarmed at the number of offensive remarks that people have made during this chat. Why is it that there is so little respect given to Native Americans?

Suzan Shown Harjo: That’s one of the problems with dehumanizing, objectifying images, names, behaviors — promotion of disrespect.

There is this argument, often offered in relation to African-Americans, too, and about which I will soon post – the “get over it” argument.

Harry: I am first to agree that what has happened to the Indians by the Americans was a horrible thing, and it shouldn’t be looked over. However, how long are you going to play that trump card? Eventually, you need to move on as a group and realize that things are never going to revert back to the olden days. Eventually you are going to have to take responsibility for yourself and stop pulling out that same card.

Suzan Shown Harjo: We aren’t trying to go back to a bygone era. We seek justice in our own time and in comparison to all the other human beings of our time.

Finally, for my purposes, Harjo’s got herself a sense of humor.

JJ: Ever think that instead of promoting equality, this fight of yours will sour people about Indians. People may think that Indians are kind of stupid for trying to change a mascot’s name.

Suzan Shown Harjo: The thoughts of those who could be soured over a bid for justice are of little interest to me — what are they going to do? Get mad and take away the western hemisphere?


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