Amanda Blackhorse stood in her gravel drive, waving at visitors. She wore skinny jeans, a loose black top and swipes of liquid cat-eye liner. Loops of fine turquoise beads dangled from her ears.
Two guests pulled up, followed by two men in a car marked security. Her long black hair whipped in the hot wind as she explained to two officers that her visitors were journalists, not lost tourists. They eyed the reporter and photographer, smiled and left.
Blackhorse has gotten used to the occasional security check-ins since the NFL’s Washington Redskins filed suit against her and four other Native American advocates who have been fighting to get the team to change its name, which is described as a slur in at least eight mainstream dictionaries.
Blackhorse and the other plaintiffs in the 2006 Blackhorse et al vs. Pro-Football Inc. case argued that the team’s name was offensive and therefore not eligible for trademark registration. In June, the U.S. patent office’s trademark board agreed and revoked six team trademarks. Blackhorse and the other plaintiffs received no monetary award.
In August, the team filed a new suit, Pro-Football Inc. vs. Blackhorse et al, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. They alleged the trademark board improperly penalized them “based on the content of the team’s speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
The suit argues the team “has been unfairly deprived of its valuable and long-held intellectual property,” although it retains its trademark rights until this case, or an appeal, is settled.
The new lawsuit seeks no damages or action from Blackhorse, and she stands to gain nothing financially if she wins.
The team has not responded to numerous e-mails and phone messages requesting comment over two months. When owner Dan Snyder was asked in May 2013 by USA TODAY about his time frame for changing the team’s name, he replied: “NEVER.” The case could be heard as early as next year.
Blackhorse lives along a highway 30 minutes west of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a postcard-worthy land teeming with towering rock formations. Her pale-gray tract house sits just off a dirt road in Kayenta, a town of 5,000 on the Navajo Reservation in northeast Arizona. On her small lot, in a neighborhood at the base of golden sandstone hills, she keeps a matchbook garden of zucchini, squash and radishes.
The house sits just past a ceremonial hogan, a traditional round, log and packed-earth Navajo home. Her door faces east to the sunrise, like all Navajo homes.
Blackhorse has devoted much of her life to her tribe, traditionally sheepherders, who have scratched out a living in a land where toxic uranium mines dot the landscape almost as plentifully as the high desert scrub, a place where tap water and good jobs are both sometimes rare.
At 32, she is a psychiatric social worker by day and an Internet activist by day and night.
Blackhorse’s efforts have made her one of a few public faces of modern Native advocacy. She has appeared on talk shows, been quoted in dozens of articles and stood up to harassment from Washington fans across the nation, as well as those who perceive her work as “political correctness run amok.” And on her own reservation, her advocacy has set her apart as the woman who spoke out among people who were raised to mind their own business.
On the highway to Monument Valley on a recent Saturday, she rode to a lunch appointment and zoomed past car after car pulling off to the side of the road. Tourists scrambled out to set up tripods to capture the stark grandeur of Agathla Peak and Owl Rock, both rising against the blue sky as it filled with the first wisps of what would become towers of late-afternoon monsoon clouds.
Blackhorse walked into the Trading Post gift shop, which is part of the View, a restaurant and hotel in the park on the Utah side of the state line.
She was there for a casual lunch. But also to make a point. In the heart of her nation’s land, the View is a testament to the area’s beauty and her people’s desire to share it. But it is also an object lesson in cultural theft and kitsch-ification.
“What’s this? I mean, they call it a dreamcatcher,” said Blackhorse, holding a loop of wood laced with a spider’s web of cording. “I don’t even know why this is here. I mean, I’m sure for some tribe, somewhere, this means something. But it means nothing to the people here. This is not our tradition. This is just cultural appropriation.”
Since the Pan-Indian movement of the ‘70s, dreamcatchers have become shorthand for Native Americans, but they are not connected to any of Arizona’s 21 tribes. Originally, they were used by the Ojibwe, whose ancestral lands are 1,800 miles away, around Lake Superior.
Blackhorse kept walking through the shop and picking up or pointing out Native American-style items for sale. She’d shrug at neutral objects, sigh at the tacky ones and harden her voice and shake her head at the offensive.
“The bow and arrow, and the drums, OK, I guess. I mean, what do you think you’re using them for? But, whatever.
“The cradleboard, OK. The mandala?” — a circular, elaborate sand painting done to bring healing — “Not OK. That is about religion, not decoration.
“Kokopelli? Kokopelli. I can’t,” Blackhorse said, pointing to a section of T-shirts.
The Kokopelli, that flute-playing dancing form with a protruding headdress, is also used as a kind of ubiquitous shorthand for the Southwest. It was originally related to the Hopi.
Blackhorse pointed to a wall covered with larger-than-life sepia posters of John Wayne, whose interactions with Native Americans in director John Ford’s films seldom ended well for them. “And look, there he is, everywhere,” she said.
The View’s website boasts the largest collection of Wayne memorabilia in the Four Corners.
On the menu, burgers, salads and sandwiches named for Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and other famous, dead white men crowded out Native dishes, leaving only a handful, including mutton stew, blue-corn mush seasoned with juniper ash, and chewy fry-bread tacos.
Sitting at a table in the window-filled dining room, plateaus and formations rising behind her, Blackhorse explained that this sends a message that Native land is only worth celebrating for its contributions to mainstream U.S. culture.
“Landmarks are designated by movies and bands. That’s where Metallica filmed a video, that’s where ‘Forrest Gump’ filmed, that’s where John Wayne did this or that.
“It bothers me. He’s responsible for those Westerns and so many stereotypes about Native Americans.”
First taste of oppression
No one taught us what oppression was, but we were living in it, Blackhorse says.
Blackhorse and her six brothers and sisters were raised, at various times, by an aunt, their paternal grandmother, their mom, their dad and sometimes at a boarding school in Tuba City, which is also on the Navajo Reservation. For several years, Blackhorse lived in an area called Big Mountain about 50 miles south of Kayenta.
She lived with her paternal grandmother at her sheep camp. The house there was about the size of a studio apartment and had no electricity or running water.
Big Mountain is not so much a village as a collection of bare houses and hogans amid dirt roads and juniper. Circuitous, poorly tended roads meant Blackhorse rode the school bus to Kayenta at least two hours each way.
The land is near Black Mesa, where more than 6,500 Navajos and about 30 Hopis were removed between 1974 and 1986 to make room for coal speculation on the Hopi Reservation, where the two tribes had lived together peacefully for decades.
At the time, some lawmakers blithely compared the relocation to a move across town, according to interviews in the 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary “Broken Rainbow.” The Navajo, many of whom had never used money and could not speak English, said they would die if they left their land. Many did.
Some Navajos resisted, even as the government bulldozed the vegetation that fed their sheep, and about 40 are still classified as “awaiting relocation.” Blackhorse’s grandmother is one of them.
She still lives in Big Mountain and turned 99 this month. Blackhorse was little when she lived with her, but sees this as one of the foundations of her advocacy.
On long car rides to Phoenix, Flagstaff and Albuquerque, Blackhorse started to question Big Mountain’s poverty. People in the cities, she remembers thinking, lived in “large, beautiful homes and can meet basic needs.”
She didn’t understand why her family, and most everyone she knew, lived so differently, so meagerly.
“No one taught us what oppression was, but we were living in it,” Blackhorse said. “We don’t wake up one day and decide to commit domestic violence and to commit suicide; there is a reason that those things develop.”
Her oldest sister, Floriann Blackhorse, who lives in Phoenix, remembers their upbringing as “really rough.”
“We came from a lot of substance abuse in our families,” said Floriann, 37, who is also a psychiatric social worker. “I think that’s what kind of drove us into the fields that we went into. It was pretty unstable.”
The first time Blackhorse acted like an activist, she was 15.
One day at Pinon High School, home of the Eagles, the principal called a general assembly in the gym to scold them for graffiti in the boys bathroom. There on the reservation, about 95 percent of the roughly 450 students were Native.
“He was yelling at us, and at some point, he said, ‘You guys are just a bunch of stupid Indians.’ And that was not uncommon,” she said. “Most of our teachers were White, and they came from the outside. And they would talk like that from time to time.
“And no one said anything. It was dead silent.”
A news story at the time described the principal as using the words “dumb Indians” to describe students who spent money on drugs, not the whole student body.
But Blackhorse remembers sitting still in the bleachers, her mouth agape at his use of the term. She waited for a teacher or other student to say something. None did.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘White trash!’ I just yelled it at him.
“I was so mad, and so fed up, and so angry that he could just stand there and say that, and no one would say anything.”
Today, Blackhorse wishes she hadn’t responded to one slur with another.
“The first thing I had to reach for was anger,” she said.
A boy across the gym yelled, repeating her words, and the principal asked who had shouted, but no one told. After the assembly, Blackhorse said, she and a handful of girls approached the principal and asked for an apology. She said he put them off.
By the next week, Blackhorse had organized a walkout, drawing students and some teachers.
“It was an amazing scene to see these Natives chanting and walking together,” she said.
On the following Tuesday, parents and grandparents blocked a highway leading into their community, forcing school buses to turn back. Blackhorse said it was because they didn’t want their children educated by people who would talk to them so disrespectfully.
The school superintendent later said that the principal apologized.
“That was one of my first moments when I really understood the power of protest,” Blackhorse said.
Following in her older sister Floriann’s footsteps, Blackhorse went to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. The school averages about 1,000 students per semester, all from one of the 566 federally recognized tribes. Blackhorse earned an associate degree in social work.
Having grown up mostly among the Navajo, she was impressed by students at Haskell, seeing for the first time the beauty and breadth of Native culture. But she also realized the problems on her reservation were not unique.
“I found that Native people are diverse, but we all share the same history, same problems, same historical trauma,” said Blackhorse.
By 2005, she had transferred to the University of Kansas to finish her bachelor’s degree. There, she joined a group called Not In Our Honor to protest the use of Native-themed words and images. One day, they set up outside Arrowhead Stadium at a game between Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I saw with my own eyes how people feel about Native American people,” Blackhorse said in an earlier interview with The Arizona Republic. “They were so disrespectful to us in public. They said things like ‘Go back to your reservation,’ ‘We won, you lost,’ ‘Why don’t you go get a drink?’ And then they threw their beers at us. I’d never experienced that kind of racism before.”
Amanda Blackhorse Ch 3
When Blackhorse was in college, a Cheyenne and Muscogee woman named Suzan Harjo was looking for young Native people to help her carry forward a legal battle she had launched more than a decade earlier.
People of good character
A woman outside of Blackhorse’s tribe had the biggest impact on her life.
Back from lunch, Blackhorse quietly showed off family photos. Some are studio portraits, others are sunny, outdoor snapshots filled with three and four generations of women, mostly, arms heavy with turquoise jewelry. She describes them as “strong,” “brave” and “supportive,” all these sisters and aunts, her mom and grandma.
But it was a woman outside her tribe who had the biggest impact on her life.
When Blackhorse was in college, a Cheyenne and Muscogee woman named Suzan Harjo was looking for young Native people to help her carry forward a legal battle she had launched more than a decade earlier.
Harjo, who lives in Washington, D.C., went with her husband to her first, and last, Washington football game in 1974. The president of the Morning Star Institute recently wrote about the experience in Politico Magazine: “Fans around us began touching and tugging our hair and using the R-word to tell their friends about us.”
Harjo later became executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, but she never forgot about the humiliation of the NFL game.
In 1992, she and six others filed a precursor to the Blackhorse case, Harjo et al vs. Pro-Football Inc., a suit alleging the Washington team name was a slur, and so was unfit for trademark. In 1999, the trademark board agreed.
But the team appealed partly on a technical argument that the plaintiffs had waited too long to register their offense. Harjo’s group lost the case.
Harjo saw the ruling coming and had been looking for recommendations of young Native Americans who could resist bribery, flattery and threats. She also wanted to avoid those with a “weakness for money or alcohol,” or who seemed “not steady.”
“I was looking for people of good character, good moral standing,” said Harjo. “I asked them very pointed questions about who they were and what they valued. I thought (Blackhorse) was honest and thoughtful and that she was committed to ... the goal of eliminating this despicable name.”
Harjo also liked that Blackhorse was a mother.It made her seem particularly responsible. And she was moved by Blackhorse’s commitment to earn her master’s and then return to her reservation to work.
“I was very impressed with her, her maturity and her love of the people,” Harjo said. “You can’t do this if you don’t love your people because there’s just no reward in it. The reward is that you’re doing it for the people.”
In 2006,six plaintiffs, one later dropped out, filed suit. Blackhorse was the oldest, at 24, and the first alphabetically, which is why her name is on the suit.
“All you can do is really stand up in court, and say who you are and what you’ve done and the truth of it, and hope that prevails,” Harjo said. “Because there will be all sorts of perceptions and distortions about you.”
Harjo was so exacting because she knew that the hardships she faced in her own court case would befall the new set of plaintiffs, too.
People would dump out trash cans, looking for things to use as blackmail. People would offer money and bribes.
People would call at all hours to make death threats, to say they would cut up her face. People would send faxes repeating as much. People would drive slowly in front of the house, eyeing her, her kids, her cat.
She doesn’t talk about her kids, or post their pictures on social media, because she, and their dad, who lives in Kansas, are afraid for their safety. Her sisters help organize protests in the Phoenix area, and share her postings on social media, but Blackhorse rarely talks about them, as a way to protect them, too.
Native Americans across the country have launched websites, petitions and public-relations campaigns for and against Blackhorse’s cause. Commercials have run. Protests and rallies have been held. Stories have been written in newspapers, magazines and websites, and dozens of segments have been taped on news and talk shows.
Team owner Snyder even launched a counter-charity. In 2013, he founded the Original Americans Foundation. Some Native leaders have denounced the organization as a public-relations stunt. But a handful of tribes have accepted money, saying they were too poor to be proud in the face of resources that would make their children’s lives better.
In Kayenta, the conversation is more nuanced.
In part, this is because of the proximity of Red Mesa High School, 74 miles away in Teec Nos Pos, whose mascot is the same as the Washington team. Blackhorse has spoken to the school’s principal about the name, but he declined her offer to talk to the students.
Months of Republic e-mails to the principal and superintendent asking for comment have gone unreturned.
But the very existence of the team mascot — using a name that several newspapers deem too offensive to print — in the heart of a Native American reservation shows, perhaps, the greatest challenge Blackhorse faces.
It’s part of a conversation Americans have been having since the ‘70s, when thousands of organizations had Native-themed mascots. Now there are only about 900. But even though Blackhorse fights the imagery as degrading, and at least two judges have agreed with the claim, many of her people do not.
In a place so sparsely populated and so remote, it behooves community members not to judge.
On a recent Monday in Kayenta, Davis Joe, 46, shopped in the frozen-foods aisle at Bashas’, having driven 27 miles from Dennehotso, population 746. Joe’s relationship with the word is complicated; sometimes it gets to him, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Joe remembered a White man calling him the name when he was at college in Wyoming.
“I called him a name right back; I have my rights, too” he said, laughing at the memory. “The man was half-drunk, and when I asked him about it later, he was sober, and he didn’t even remember it.”
Joe let that go. But years later, working on a construction crew in Phoenix, a White man called him that word and he reported him to management.
“I said we’re not that kind of company; he’s got to go. And he was let go.”
Joe was shopping with Rhiannon Bailey, 30, and their 6-year-old daughter.
Bailey had heard of the controversy, but didn’t realize a Navajo neighbor was at the center of it.
“I don’t care,” she said. “There are more important things to bring here, jobs, homes. Half the houses don’t even have electricity and sewer systems. I mean, we’re out here trying to strive.”
“If they want people to stop using the word, they should teach the kids their own language,” interjected Joe, a fluent Dine speaker who has already taught his daughter her colors, numbers and the names of her clans.
Bailey added, “You have to raise your kids to be proud of themselves.”
At the Burger King in Kayenta, Rhonda White Young, 52, had driven about seven miles from out of town to use the restaurant’s public computer, which is built into a large display on Navajo Code Talkers. She’d just been talking about the controversy with her children and all of them agreed that as long as no one was using the word derogatorily, the name should stay.
“As an American Indian, I’m proud to have them use that name,” White Young said, her large San Francisco 49ers earrings sparkling as she nodded.
White Young and her daughter Macqualyn Young, 21, are both “huge” football fans. Young said that she felt like if the team changed its name, it would send a negative message, like Natives weren’t even good enough to be a mascot.
“It would be like them saying, ‘Natives don’t need to be represented that way,’” Young said. “It would feel like Natives were canceled out.”
While none of the people on the reservation interviewed for this story wanted the Washington team to change its name, they didn’t think Blackhorse should stop her advocacy, either. Every person said some version of, “If it bothers her, she should do something.”
This isn’t indifference. This is culture. In a place so sparsely populated and so remote, it behooves community members not to judge. And the Navajo hold dear the concept of hózhó, a word that, roughly, means balance in the world, in community.
Blackhorse believes the negativity of the team’s name has already hurt them. But the legacy of broken treaties and deprivation has been even more damaging.
It’s why, after working in Tucson and then Phoenix, she returned to Kayenta.
“I have to do this; this is a life mission for me,” Blackhorse said. “I grew up here, and I understand what people need.”
Amanda Blackhorse says the ruling by a board with the U.S. Patent Office is another step in the right direction.
Down an uneven road just a few blocks from her house, Blackhorse works in a beige trailer marked by a white sign that reads “Counseling” in red letters, part of the Kayenta Health Center.
She focuses on mental health from both a traditional Navajo perspective and from a Western therapeutic one, helping people deal with everything that can go wrong emotionally: suicidal thoughts, intimate-partner violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and substance abuse.
Chip Thomas got to know Blackhorse when she worked with him for a while at Inscription House Clinic and speaks reverently about her work.
Thomas moved there 27 years ago to practice family medicine at this tiny spot between Kayenta and Tuba City, and said Blackhorse’s work is rooted in rebuilding self-esteem.
“There’s this concept of the ‘soul wound,’ which is not just limited to Native Americans,” he said. “It’s also talked about in the context of African Americans and slavery. It talks about how there’s an intergenerational passage of negativity within families.
“It starts with an individual but then it spreads out among the family and the community.”
Blackhorse loves the quiet of the reservation by day and the star-filled skies at night. She loves that her kids can walk two minutes to school, and that they’re surrounded by people who speak their language and practice their religion, and that the whole family can participate in community ceremonies.
And she likes going to the Wild Wednesdays flea market behind the Chevron station for blue-corn mush. The only thing she misses about living in Phoenix is Starbucks. But she has a French press.
When the stress of the court case wears, Blackhorse comes home and hugs her kids and tells them she loves them. Other times, she goes for a run down open, unshaded streets that lead up to the rolling sandstone hills. Sometimes she hikes the hills with her kids.
The case likely will pit language experts, historians and Native Americans against each other to determine whether the board was right to rule that the Washington name was disparaging to “a substantial composite” of Native Americans when the trademarks were granted between 1967 and 1990.
Blackhorse could have to testify, as she has before, that the team’s name is hurtful. But her lawyer, Jesse Witten, said he hopes the suit doesn’t make it that far.
“There’s not case or controversy between the team and Amanda,” said the partner at Washington, D.C.-based Drinker Biddle & Reath. “She didn’t do anything to them. The judge can’t order her to do anything that would give the team any relief.”
Blackhorse said she’s prepared for whatever Washington will do as it pursues its case against her. But she doesn’t think about it constantly. It’s so far away. And there’s so much to do now.
The Arizona Cardinals play Washington on Sunday, Oct. 12, and Blackhorse is working with Native advocacy groups to coordinate a protest at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Still, Blackhorse’s longer battle may not be at NFL games, or in the courts.
There is another risk Harjo warned her about, one she has come to recognize from the small garden outside her east-facing front door.
Once she decided to take on a cause, she would stand out from the others. People around her would not just rifle through her trash cans. They might follow her, or follow the people who visit her.
Sometimes, those followers will be in uniforms, like the men in the patrol vehicle who paused in front of her home that Saturday morning.
Blackhorse now says those men are watching her too.
“Not everyone wants me to do this,” Blackhorse said.