A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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.” [continue reading]
— by Megan Finnerty writing for The Republic | azcentral.com