In 2013, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Football Team, told USA Today that, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use all caps.”
Seven years later, never happened sooner than Snyder ever could have anticipated.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement has forced everyone, from individuals to corporate entities, to examine how they contribute to the systemic racism impacting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. Nationwide organizing against police violence has renewed conversations and awareness of how statues, flags, and race-based mascots are contributing factors to the ongoing injustices faced by marginalized communities.
The Washington Football Team was no exception, and public pressure, after decades of protests against the team’s name, made it so Snyder could no longer deny his team’s complicity in upholding racism towards Native peoples by holding on to their racist moniker. However, the real reason for the change had little to do with a change of heart. It all came down to protecting the team’s financial interests.
On July 3, 2020, the Washington Football Team announced that the name would “undergo a thorough review” amid mounting pressure from corporate sponsors to change the name in order to retain their support. Retailers like Nike, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and others added to the pressure by dropping the team’s merchandise from their stores.
Ten days later, on July 13, the Washington Football Team formally announced that it would be changing the name. The organization also stated that they would be discontinuing the use of the logo and all Native imagery and associations moving forward.
The seemingly sudden change left fans reeling. Others were confused as to why an organization would be changing its brand after 87 years. However, the change was not sudden for Native people who have been working tirelessly to eradicate the practice of using Native names and mascots in the sports industry for the last 90 years.
Before the National Congress of American Indians began their campaign in the 1940s to end the negative stereotyping of Native people in the media, Native people had already worked to address the issue of mascots and team names on local levels for at least 10 years. The change is anything but sudden, especially for advocates like Suzan Harjo, who did not think she would live to see the Washington Football Team change its name.
After all, Suzan Harjo, one of the most prominent figures in the #ChangeTheName movement, has been organizing against Native mascots since 1962. She got involved with the efforts led by Clyde Warrior, a prominent Ponca activist, who was organizing to retire the University of Oklahoma’s Native mascot, Little Red. In 1970, eight years after Harjo joined the movement, Little Red became the first of 2,100 Native mascots that have since been retired.
In 1992, Harjo and six other leaders filed a lawsuit challenging the team’s trademark registrations held by Pro Football, Inc, asserting that they violated the Latham Act. The Latham Act prohibits the trademark registration of anything that “may disparage persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
The Trademark Trial and Appeals board agreed and ruled that the Washington Football Team’s name and logo were disparaging to Native people, resulting in the cancellation of their trademark protections. In 2005, however, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia overturned the decision “on grounds of insufficient evidence of disparagement.” The appeals filed were rejected based on laches—in other words, a federal judge declared that Harjo had waited too long to continue with the case.
Not one to be easily defeated, Harjo recruited a new generation of advocates to pick up the torch. The new and much younger plaintiffs challenging the Washington Football Team in court included Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Courtney Tsotigh, Jillian Pappan, Shquanebin Lone-Bentley, Phillip Glover, and Amanda Blackhorse. HarjoHarjo mentored them and helped them organize a new lawsuit to challenge the Washington Football Team’s trademark protections. In 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal board once again ruled that the team’s name and logo were disparaging to Native people.
Indian Country celebrated the decision. Support for the #ChangeTheName and #NotYourMascots movement grew substantially. In November, five months after the ruling, Minneapolis was host to a massive protest against the Washington Football Team. Over 5,000 supporters were in attendance from across the U.S, and more allies were stepping up to take the battle to local high schools using Native mascots. In the same month, Harjo was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom to recognize her advocacy and policy work. It seemed as if Indian Country had won a crucial battle in the war to end the use of Native names and mascots, but it, too, was short-lived.
In another case involving a denied trademark registration, the Supreme Court ruled the disparagement clause violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. The ruling effectively overturned the 2014 decision in Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc, and both the Native plaintiffs and Justice Department decided to withdraw from further litigation on the issue.
Since then, Native organizations like the National Congress of American Indians, Illuminatives, Not Your Mascots, No More Native Mascots, We R Native, NCARSM, EONM, Rising Hearts, and so many more organizations and individuals have continued to educate and work towards eliminating the use of Native names, stereotypes, and mascots in both the media and sports industries.
In response to the Washington Football Team finally changing their name, Harjo told the Washington Post, “We’ve learned that you don’t dance in the end zone just because you got close to the goal line.You dance after you score.”
The change has been a long time coming. It was inevitable, but it is not yet time to dance. For Native people, it is time to mobilize and refocus on the remaining professional teams using Native names and mascots. They, too, can say Never. However, Native people are seizing every opportunity to make their voices heard. They are standing up to assert that they are not your mascots, and to never say never.