It used to shock her to see cellphones on the Navajo Reservation.
But now Amanda Blackhorse, who grew up there, sometimes without running water or electricity, hardly notices when people stop to post a photo to Instagram while shopping the Kayenta farmer’s market or hiking the sandstone hills north of town.
Reliable cell coverage came to the Navajo Reservation starting in 2010 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“Elderly grandmothers who don’t even know their own phone number — they tape onto the back of the phone — but they’re using (social media) and that really changes things for us,” said Blackhorse, a social justice advocate who lives in the 5,000-person town in northeastern Arizona.
The Internet has enabled the collaboration of countless advocates and activists separated from each other by chance, from the Arab Spring to Ferguson, Mo. to the ALS ice bucket challenge.
Now, Native Americans are using social media to draw attention to social causes, to interact with media and to document their daily lives, subverting a diaspora that’s been in place since Oklahoma established the country’s first reservation in 1851.
Sunday, this online connectivity will lead to real-life action when Blackhorse joins Native Americans from across the West to host a march, rally and news conference prior to the Arizona Cardinals game against the Washington Redskins at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Blackhorse will talk about her role as one of five Native Americans who won a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June to strip the Washington team of six trademarks on its name and logos. The team is now suing her, alleging it was improperly penalized.
With the slogan “Change the name. Change the mascot,” the Glendale rally is the first in a nationwide series — some called rallies, others protests — organized by Native Americans using social media.
“We are not Redksins; we are Native Americans, and there are 21 tribes in Arizona, and we all have names: Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Tohono O’odham,” said Tempe organizer Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst, who is Diné, also called Navajo, and Hunkpapa Sioux. “We’re not here to showcase our dances... but we’re here to showcase that we’re here. This is our form of protest.”
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In June, the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the Trademark Office, ruled that the Washington team name and images are disparaging to Native Americans and so are ineligible for trademark. Since then, the team has not responded to requests for comment. But team owner Dan Snyder has said repeatedly that he would “never” change the name.
Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Sports editor Dave Zirin, who has written about indigenous people and sports for years with The Nation and Edge of Sports, said social media lets them share their cause directly, drawing and sustaining national attention.
Such a small group, often not connected to political or media figures, was once easy to ignore and non-Native allies easy to discredit, Zirin said.
“There’s this issue that Native Americans always fight against, which is invisibility imposed on them by the dominant culture,” Zirin said. “The online campaigns have been a from-below effort to be heard; they’ve fought their way into the room. You see it emerge from decades of institutionalized racism and oppression.”
The Arizona rally will feature keynote speakers, drummers and dancers, who will march and assemble on public property adjacent to the northeastern section of the parking lots.
The next protests are scheduled at Washington games in Arlington, Texas; Minneapolis; Santa Clara, Calif., and Landover, Md. Native American communities near stadiums on Washington’s schedule picked the locations, all of which are near fairly large, socially and politically well-organized communities.
America is home to 566 federally recognized tribes and about 5.2 million Indigenous people.
Most of Sunday’s participants are under age 40. Because of federal policy from the 1950s to the 1970s that pressured Native populations to move to cities, they’ve grown up digitally connected. Today, 78 percent of indigenous people live in metropolitan areas, according to 2013 U. S. Census Bureau data, compared with 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.
Blackhorse, who has been fighting the Washington team’s name in court since 2006, remembers when she would celebrate one article a year being written about the cause. Now, she said, it feels like a news story or blog post gets done each day.
One of the people responsible for this sea change is Portland mom and writer Jacqueline Keeler, who is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. Keeler launched the group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry in 2013.
Keeler puts out press releases and uses the group’s Facebook page to share stories abotu the issue and to do online activism like organizing nationwide NFL viewing parties, encouraging followers to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission every time the Washington team’s name is said.
And while neither Keeler’s nor the group’s Twitter and Facebook feeds have more than a couple thousand followers, those followers are influential, including activists and writers on race, sports and social justice and journalists from the Washington Post, NPR, Salon, USA Today and The Atlantic.
“On social media, unless you actually produce and do things, you cease to exist in the group,” Keeler said. “It’s not about grandstanding, it’s about getting the work done.
Native Americans are using smart online marketing strategies and acting like a brand, said Manhattan social media consultant Peter Shenkman. He said they’re framing a complicated conversation about identity, racism and sports as something simple: change the name, change the mascot.
“They have a goal in mind,” Shenkman said. “It’s one thing to say everyone, get mad. It’s another to say, here are actionable items we’re going to roll out in the next six months.”
Julie B. Wiest, a sociology professor at Westchester University of Pennsylvania, has studied the way groups used social media to organize protests and communicate political ideas during the 2011 Arab Spring.
She said activists of all kinds are using social media to do a few basic things: establish connections with like-minded others, create more space for political dialogue, organize and implement activities, promote a sense of community, and publicize a cause to gain support from outsiders.
“(Social media) is not a new thing in and of itself,” said Wiest. “It has introduced a speed and interactivity that are new. And a lot of pre-organization takes place. It’s not as spontaneous as you’d think. In Egypt, chat rooms and conversations about these topics were happening online in 2009.”
In 2001, Klee Benally who is Navajo, founded Indigenous Action Media and started making documentaries and short YouTube videos. Since then, he’s been teaching media literacy, how to create viral videos and how to write press releases and blogs.
“Today, instead of writing a press release and hoping it gets picked up somewhere, we can push it out on our website for instant dissemination,” Benally said, “and then those with social media accounts... become their own media outlets.”
Change the Name & Change the Mascot Rally
What: March, rally and press conference with Native American speakers including Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., Simon Ortiz, poet, writer and professor and Amay Tadits, president of Kwatsan Media, Inc.
When: March at 9 a.m. Rally and news conference at 11 a.m. north of the parking lots on Maryland Avenue between 91st and 95th avenues.
Where: Rally and news conference to be held directly north of University of Phoenix Stadium. The stadium i at the intersection of Loop 101 and Glendale Avenue, Glendale.
Organizers expect at least 60 supporters at Sunday’s march, press conference and rally, but the Glendale Police Department is planning for about 30, based on estimates they’ve received about similar events from police forces in Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix.
For three weeks, Glendale has been coordinating with Native American advocates to assess the event’s goals, attendance and overall plan, said Jeff Daukas, Sergeant of the department’s community engagement team.
“The police department’s job is to keep things orderly and maintain peace,” he said.
Three plainclothes officers will be at the rally to monitor participants and fans and provide guidance.
There are rumors of a counter-protest but that seems unlikely.
“I don’t have any intel at all that would tell me anything that this is going to be anything other than a peaceful protest,” said Daukas.
At Washington home games, some Native Americans have been shouted at, pelted with beers, threatened with murder and other acts of violence. Many artists and activists have documented these experiences on YouTube videos, Twitter updates and blog posts.
This rally is likely going to be different because Native advocates will not be in the tailgate area, which is private property, and because the number of Washington fans will be smaller in Arizona than at the team’s home games.
But Native organizers have been training participants how to stay safe, protect themselves and respectfully engage with people who ask questions. They also plant to use phones to video all interactions, to both deter harassment and violence, and to document what does occur for later use in court or on social media.