"Native Sports Mascots Must Go": An Interview with Amanda Blackhorse
Robert Caldwell: Please tell the readers something about yourself. How did you first come to challenge racist mascots?
Amanda Blackhorse: My name is Amanda Blackhorse from the Diné tribe, or what is known as the Navajo Nation. I am from Big Mountain and Kayenta, Arizona on the Navajo Nation.
I got involved in the mascot issue in 2005 after attending a protest where the Washington and the Kansas City NFL teams played in Kansas City. It was there I saw firsthand how Indigenous people are publicly disrespected, and how billion-dollar franchises such as the Washington and Kansas City teams promote disrespect toward and profit immensely from the stereotyping of Native people. We were treated less-than simply because we protested the use of our identity in professional sports. People called us horrible names, yelled at us, threw things at us, and disrespected us publicly, and this was socially acceptable.
Soon after that protest Suzan Harjo got in touch with me through a mutual friend and I learned about her fight against the Washington teams’ trademark in Harjo vs. Pro Football. It was then that Suzan organized me and other young Native Americans throughout the nation to petition the Federal Trademark board to cancel the federal registration of the Washington teams name "redskin."
Although other teams like Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Cleveland Indians are disparaging to Native people and promote stereotypes of Native people, our focus on the R-word was important because of its heinous origins. The term is a dictionary-defined racial slur, historically used to describe scalps or pieces of body parts taken from Indigenous people in the time of human bounty hunting or in the extermination of the Indigenous population.
RC: Popular momentum has been gaining against the Washington NFL team’s name and logo in recent years, but the struggle against anti-Native racism in media and sports stretches back decades. What explains the shift in popular consciousness?
AB: What most people don't know is that the fight against racist Native mascots has been happening for over 40 years. Native people have always protested these teams, and native groups have attempted to fight these racist stereotypes and corporations/franchises. The difference now is that we've threatened the pocketbook of a billion-dollar franchise and a multi-billion-dollar industry which capitalizes off of Native cultural appropriation.
The cultural appropriation of Native identity and culture is a billion dollar industry. See, we caught the eye of the nation after all this time. At the end of the day the Washington team can call themselves whatever they want to call themselves, even if it is a racial slur, they just won't be able to profit off of it. [Editor's note: A court ruled that the franchise can’t trademark the racist logo.]
RC: You were the lead plaintiff in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. but you have been on the frontlines of protest before the suit. What is the relationship between the strategies of popular protests and the legal challenge? Are there other strategies and tactics that activists have considered?
AB: By protesting, Indigenous people are showing the rest of the world that we are still here. See, we are always ignored, brushed off and it seems that most people do not believe or understand we are still alive. Most people see us on T.V. and in history books. We are always viewed through stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. The way we are seen is usually not accurate.
I believe protest is so important right now, because through protest, everyday Native people who are not able to engage in the legal battle can come out and express themselves and be empowered alongside their own people and our sympathizers.
One way in which I’ve been able to reach many is through writing. Journalism is a new occupation which I never thought I would step into. The Native voice is so important. What I’ve seen recently is more journalists, reporters, writers, and others talking about this issue. Through writing my platform expands and we are able to communicate ourselves unabridged and uncensored.
RC: Despite the popular upsurge and legal victories, the Washington team owner Daniel Snyder seems completely intransigent. Recently, college players at Grambling State University and the University of Missouri went on strike to protest exploitation, racism, and poor leadership. Could players play a part in putting additional pressure on Snyder?
AB: Players standing up and speaking out would be monumental in this movement. They have no idea about the impact of their voice. More recently one player did mention that the name-change issue was affecting their play, but that was about it. Former players and former NFL players have spoken out but do not have the same clout as current players. I do know that players are told not to discuss publicly the name-change topic.
One of the images which has empowered me and the story I’ve been so inspired by is the story of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the two Olympic medal winners in 1968 who stood with their fists high in the air. It was monumental.
Activists demonstrate against the Redsk**ns in Dallas.
RC: What can those committed to anti-oppression politics (both indigenous and allies) do in regions without existing groups coordinating protests? How can leaders of other movements best unite with the movement against racist mascots to support the overall goal?
AB: By speaking out, speaking up, and continuing to have the conversation about why we still have a team called the Washington Redskins in this day and age. The goals are:
- Eliminating Native mascots in our communities;
- Creating Indigenous alliances;
- Calling out racism and injustice in our everyday lives;
- Boycotting the NFL.
The NFL is just as guilty as the rest. They refuse to hear us, they refuse to call out the Washington owner.
RC: Where does the broader movement go next? Are there other North American professional sports teams or mascots that should be targeted? What about amateur and school mascots?
AB: All Native sports mascots must go. That is the broader movement. I hope that this will create awareness of Native issues. Each community is different but it is my hope that this fight will empower our communities and our people can reclaim and redefine our identities.
This will ultimately affect our children, and I hope it could increase the self-esteem of our youth and reduce the disproportionate rates of suicide. That’s a bit ambitious but we should always be.
Robert Caldwell interviewed Native American activist Amanda Blackhorse on the rising tide of activism around the Washington Redsk**s and other racist mascots in sports. Robert is a member of Solidarity in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.