The story the Smithsonian researcher told was of a little girl, a second grader, in small-town Oklahoma in the early 1950s. The little girl was differing with her teacher one day about the facts of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, known more infamously, and oddly, by the name of its loser, Lt. Col. George Custer, rather than any of the American Indian tribes that vanquished Custer and his troops.
The little girl was Indian, too. She was steeped in her people’s history. But the little girl’s teacher was not. He was white. He had enough of her lip, researcher Gabrielle Tayac recalled, spat “dirty redskin” in her face and then hurled the child from the classroom window on the second story of the school.
That audience at the National Museum of the American Indian on Friday gasped at the story Tayac recounted.
A rose bush broke the little girl’s fall. Her parents never returned her to the school. And the moment forged her to grow up to become an iconic human rights figure in this country, particularly for Native Americans, best known for being in the vanguard of the fight to erase the slur that so stung her sensibilities over three score ago from sports teams cheered here and around the country.
Tayac told the story early at the one-day symposium, “A Promise Kept: The Inspiring Life and Works of Suzan Shown Harjo,” before Harjo, now 74, showed up in the afternoon. Harjo, tucked beneath a wide-brim black hat, sat among the audience. She acknowledged her admirers.
As a Washington Post editorial last month noted after Maine scratched the last Native American name and image from one of its public schools and enacted a law that there could be no more, “The actions underscore the resiliency of the movement to cleanse sport teams of outdated mascots and monikers that cause offense and do real harm.”
With another NFL season in full throttle now, it is understandable to think that the movement Harjo started driving so many decades ago stalled somewhere. The NFL team I grew up rooting for in this town, where Harjo moved in the early ‘70s and reared her children on Capitol Hill, still touts the most derogatory of Indian epithets and imagery. Most broadcasters of its games say the name without a modicum of concern.
Journalists who just a few years ago announced they would no longer write the Washington NFL team’s nickname in the wake of federal rulings asserting it was offensive to Native Americans and ineligible for federal protection have resumed using it. They point to a 2017 case that upheld disparaging speech as protected free speech and yet another public survey purportedly of Native Americans that found them unconcerned with the Washington NFL team’s name. They disregarded a poll by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, that found most American Indians felt otherwise just as inconsiderately as our society has ignored the native people of this land except for its own exploitative benefit.
The truth is, however, that the momentum Harjo built with public protests and lawsuits over the bulk of her life is winning this war on words.
I remember walking through downtown Minneapolis to the since razed Metrodome on the January afternoon in 1992 to see Washington play Buffalo there in Super Bowl XXVI. There was a large commotion on a street corner. I investigated. A large contingent of people identifying themselves as native were protesting the Washington nickname as a slur against them. Among the protesters, somewhere, was Harjo. It was the first time I’d seen such a protest and thought about the complaint.
A few years later, I wrote in support of the NAACP in Midland, Tex., that no longer wanted its boys, including a star running back named Cedric Benson, to score touchdowns and win championships for a high school, Midland Lee, that was drenched in Confederate imagery and nicknamed the Rebels after Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops who fought to preserve the enslavement of those Midland black boys’ ancestors. I, too, was offended. As were, it dawned on me, the native people led by Harjo who I encountered in Minneapolis.
So I stopped writing the name and tried hard not to say it again. And I began to notice that the awareness Harjo brought to light was having an impact on others, too.
Apaches. Blackhawks. Braves. Chiefs. Indians. Savages. Redskins. Cleveland’s baseball team finally retired its degrading mascot logo Chief Wahoo.
The cleanse became so broad and continuous that a web developer at Arizona State in Tempe, Terry Kaiser Borning, began maintaining a database that includes cataloguing the erasure of Native American mascots in particular.
Harjo’s son, Duke Ray Harjo, accompanied his mother to the symposium and presented his front-row view growing up watching his mother’s righteous work that in 2014 earned her a Presidential Medal of Honor. He recalled growing up during the Joe Gibbs era on 10th Street on Capitol Hill, close enough to RFK Stadium to hear the football team’s famous fight song — infamous for its lyrics if you are Indian — being belted out during games. He recalled seeing the teams bumper stickers plastered around his neighborhood. Its trading cards handed out by Officer Friendlys at school. It’s imagery of an Native American’s head.
“The Washington football case is a response,” Duke Harjo told the audience in a voice racked with emotion, “to all she [his mother] saw around me that I had to experience.”
And all these years later, there is so much less. Really, all that is left is one.