Running ‘into the arrows’: Haskell commencement speaker took on Redskins, urges graduates to stand up for indigenous peoples

photo by: Mike Yoder

Amanda Blackhorse greets other guests during the Haskell Indian Nations University 2016 commencement ceremony Friday, May 6, 2016 on the HINU campus in Lawrence, Kan. Blackhorse, a former Haskell graduate gave the commencement address.

Haskell Indian Nations University graduate Amanda Blackhorse is known nationwide as the woman leading the legal fight to change the name of the Washington Redskins pro football team.

This week in Lawrence, she told the Haskell community that even American Indian schools should start questioning whether their own mascots reflect the way they want to be seen by others.

“The Fightin’ Indians, I think, is something we need to re-evaluate,” Blackhorse said.

“The use of Native mascots within Native communities is a problem, and I think we need to have that conversation as well.”

Blackhorse was the keynote speaker at Haskell’s spring commencement ceremony Friday morning at Coffin Complex on the Haskell campus.

Haskell awarded a total of 237 bachelor’s and associate’s degrees — the highest number of graduates Haskell has ever had at a spring commencement ceremony, school leaders said.

The ceremony, featuring drums and prayers spoken in English and tribal languages, drew relatives and loved ones from across the United States. Graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, many in Native regalia and many with one or more of their children — even tiny infants — in their arms or holding their hands.

Haskell President Venida Chenault thanked graduates for their determination in finishing what they came to Haskell to complete, adding that they also represent American Indians who did not have the same opportunity.

“I pray that as you go into the world that you would continue to fight for us,” she said.

Chenault said Blackhorse is a woman who has done that and should remind other Haskell graduates that they can make a difference.

Leadership is not about avoiding the arrows, Chenault said. “It’s about the person who’s willing to run into the arrows against the odds, knowing full well what they’re going to deal with.”

Blackhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation from Big Mountain, Ariz., said she’d always thought of herself as just a “girl from the rez.”

“I never imagined I would be in the middle of this case, taking on a billion-dollar franchise,” she said. “There is courage within all of us, resilience within all of us.”

Haskell, as it does for many, changed her world view.

At Haskell she learned about America’s indigenous decolonization and really began to understand the “atrocities” that had been “hidden” from her throughout her earlier education, Blackhorse said.

That was emotional, she said. She wept. It made her angry.

However, she processed that “historical trauma” with fellow American Indians who — though they came from many tribes — shared a similar past.

“That is something you will not get anywhere else, at any other university,” Blackhorse said.

Blackhorse received her associate’s degree from Haskell in 2004, graduated from the Kansas University School of Social Welfare in 2006 and received a master’s of social work from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009. She now is a licensed independent clinical social worker handling behavioral health in the Gila River Indian Community in Laveen, Ariz.

In 2006, she said, she was recruited to be part of a case against the Redskins, a new effort springing from Harjo et al v. Pro-Football Inc., which was filed in 1992 but later lost on appeal.

Blackhorse, with four other American Indians, filed Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc. In June 2014 the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the Redskins’ trademark registration, calling it disparaging to American Indians.

The football team appealed, lost, and has currently filed another appeal, Blackhorse said. Now, she said, the case may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly in the coming months.

None of the legal wins so far forces the Redskins to change their name, but Blackhorse said the years of work — and “taking on arrows” — have paid off.

“We’ve changed many minds,” she said.

A number of schools nationwide using the Redskins as a mascot have changed their team names, she said, and the case has sparked national conversation about cultural appropriation.

“We have to now sit down at the drawing board and talk about how we want to be represented as indigenous people today,” she said. “It’s time for change.”