Dr. Suzan Shown Harjo, president and executive director of the Morning Star Institute, and one of several plaintiffs who led Harjo et al. v. Pro Football Inc., spent Monday evening guiding a large room of diverse students and professionals through her personal and professional development. University of Nevada Las Vegas brought Harjo out to lead a public lecture through the Boyd School of Law as part of Native American Heritage Month.
Harjo, an accomplished Cheyenne-Hodulgee poet, writer and curator of Turtle Island history, started her talk by giving a shout out to Senator Harry Reid’s office. She applauded how wonderful Reid has been, mentioning the letter he had all but one of the Democratic senators sign in an effort to have the NFL remove the racial slurs and stereotypes from the Washington football team. “He could have stopped the process of that letter at any time, but he kept on saying: ‘two more people, three more people.’”
Continuing in recognizing political leaders for the work they have done, Harjo sang the praises of President Barack Obama, and the outstanding amount of work he has done for tribal nations. When President Obama was but a candidate in 2008, Harjo and other Native activists proposed yearly Tribal Nation conferences, and he has kept his word. “I just hope that the next president that comes in will continue these promises and traditions,” Harjo said.
Harjo spoke in detail of her childhood, being raised by her Cheyenne and Muscogee grandparents, since her father traveled frequently as he was in the military. Fond memories of her adolescent years, age 11 to 15, were a focal point as she walked us through her personal journey. Her father was stationed in Italy, where she recalled: “We were always seen as of the country we had just come from.” She said the experiences she had in Italy were phenomenal, an example was cruises on weekends with all of her girlfriends. She thought she didn’t know about these experiences because she was the young indigenous girl from Native country in Oklahoma, yet she reflected that when she returned home, the white kids in Tulsa knew less than she did.
She spoke of her family, saying: “I come from a family of fighters… We were always being instructed on how to stand up to racism, and we were told we had to do it for all of us.” She remembered her time in Europe as similar to an anthropologist’s time in Native country, saying she “both fell in love with the subject and kept [her] distance from it.”
Her advocacy work only blossomed from there. The crowd listened in awe as she told of the horrors of racist mascots and stereotypes. Mentioning one of her mentors, Clyde Warrior, she explained how the first sports team came to drop their mascot, Oklahoma and their “Little Red” in 1970. The tactics are familiar to most Native advocates today, but she emphasized that collectively, through working with other minoritized groups, that Little Red and other racist stereotypes like Frito Bandit and Black Sambo were dismantled. “Everyone was involved in backing each other’s priorities… How can we win together?” she asked the room. Since 1970, when Little Red fell, Harjo played a part in eliminating nearly two-thirds of racist stereotypes in American sports.
Many have questioned why the mascot is so important to Harjo: “Because it represents everything that’s wrong in this world, and getting rid of them represents hope, optimism, that change is happening, and that change is coming… It’s the same thing… as giving our children something to aspire to.” She spoke of the struggles, proclaiming: “everything is an emergency situation in Indian country,” touching on alcoholism, and Native youth suicide rates. Her work with Native youth follows her into the judicial landscape, when the Harjo et al. vs. Pro Football Inc., was rejected by the federal district court due to age. She spoke of honestly meeting with Native youth to put together the Blackhorse case that recently had a victory in 2014 in front of the Federal District Courts. She spoke of the true dangers these cases represent, and the struggles the youth would face, saying the young folk with the Blackhorse case “really showed [her] their bravery… and common sense.”
After detailing the struggles and the accomplishments she has made in terms of changing the name, the audience had what seemed to be endless questions. Hands shot up in every corner of the crowd. Questions about the Morning Star Institute and its founding, the rural education systems, the American Civil Liberties Union’s friendship brief with the Pro Football league and its influence, and whether or not litigation or legislation was the most successful in her experiences. Harjo gave new perspectives and wise words of advice for the passionate Native youth in attendance.
Harjo spoke to great extent on informing our people, specifically our young people, and ensuring they have hope. She spoke of these mascots and stereotypes, saying if you dehumanize, belittle, and demoralize people, you’re contributing to the “symptoms of a diseased society.” The Vice President of NASA at UNLV, Paloma Marcos, said: “It just kind of highlights that these efforts, they’re collective to Native excellence… Sure, it might be just one mascot to one person, but to us, it’s so much more than that.”
Many young people, professors, and faculty lingered after the talk had officially ended to honor and meet Harjo. The significance of this speaking engagement was not lost on Nevadans, who continue to struggle with racist mascots, stereotypes, and public lands. Students left feeling reenergized, motivated, and ready to continue the legacy Harjo has created. And that, they will.