CNN.com's In America series asks: "What defines you? Maybe it’s the shade of your skin, the place you grew up, the accent in your words, the make up of your family, the gender you were born with, the intimate relationships you chose to have or your generation? As the American identity changes we will be there to report it. In America is a venue for creative and timely sharing of news that explores who we are."
Today, In America took a look at Indian country, specifically the controversial Native mascot issue in a report titled "Native American Mascots: Pride or Prejudice?" Suzan Shown Harjo was one of the featured interviewees….
Suzan Shown Harjo remembers when she walked into a store with her grandfather in El Reno, Oklahoma. She wanted to get something cool to drink on a summer day. It was the early 1950s and the storekeepers told the 6-year-old she had to leave.
“No black redskins in here,” they said.
At that moment, Harjo felt small, unsafe, afraid. Because she was a dark-skinned Native American – Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee – she was being identified by just her coloring. She wasn’t even a whole human being. Not even her grandpa, whom she saw as all-powerful, could do anything to protect her.
Later in her life, that incident made her angry. Angry enough for Harjo to launch a lifelong mission to protect her people …..
At 67, Harjo believes she has made strides in her struggle to do away with racial stereotypes but says Native Americans have a long way to go.
“Because we as Indians, we don’t have the numbers,” she says, referring to the dwindling population. The latest census listed 2.9 million people as American Indian and Alaska Native.
“So we don’t pose a threat,” she says. “If we organized a march, the numbers would be so small. We’ve done it school by school. State by state.”
Harjo knows if the powerful Washington football team is forced to discard its name, then everyone else will follow. But for now, she takes pride in small victories.
Just a few weeks ago, a high school in Cooperstown, New York, decided to retire its R-word mascot.
C.J. Hebert, superintendent for the Cooperstown Central School District, said students approached him regarding their discomfort with the mascot that had been around for decades.
“I do think that times change and perspectives change, and certainly it’s historically a time for us to reconsider what the name is,” Hebert said.
That’s a statement that makes Harjo feel her campaign has been worthwhile.
Read the full CNN In America report, which is both compelling and provocative, by clicking here.