Rob Schumacher, The Republic
Washington football team owner Dan Snyder, left, and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sit in a suite during a game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in October 2014.

Blackhorse: My Face-to-Face With Dan Snyder's Chum, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly

Amanda Blackhorse

The Change the Mascot movement has taken the world by storm in the last two years. The momentum has grown tremendously and the Native voice has been heard around the world. Protesting and rallies for a name change has highlighted the voice of Native people throughout the recent NFL football season.

I knew that when the Washington team came to my home state of Arizona we would greet the owner, Dan Snyder, with the largest ever Change the Mascot rally at the University of Phoenix stadium. We knew this was a monumental time and we hosted over 200 whose rally cry was that it’s game over, time to change the mascot.

I knew the Washington team had in store a few tricks to attempt to discredit our movement. Days before the protest we heard rumors the team would bus in children and community members of Red Mesa who also use the logo and name R*dsk*n. We were somewhat prepared for this and watched sadly as they used Natives to battle for them. What was not expected was the presence of the Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly. As we were wrapping up our event, I was notified by people on social media and the press that Shelly and his wife were sitting side by side in box seats with Snyder. The news went viral and it appeared most people were upset about it.

Soon after, rumors swirled about how the Navajo Nation was going into business with the team by selling Native American artwork from the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise. These goods would be sold at the FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland – the home stadium of the team. This was eventually confirmed by the Navajo Nation on their Facebook page.

The most shocking thing about this was earlier in 2014 the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution against the Washington team’s use of the R-word. The news of this spread like wildfire, after all this time the largest tribe in the United States supports the Change the Mascot campaign. Shelly (and friends) turned his back on his own council and made secret underhanded deals with Snyder and endorsed the team name.

I am embarrassed of my own president. I asked myself: why would one do such a thing at such a controversial time with such a controversial owner? I did not want to hold that shame and I refuse to hold that shame. I stand with the Dine Medicine Man Association, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and the Navajo Nation Council who all oppose the use of the R-word.

When I attended the 20th Annual Arizona Legislative Day at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 20 I did not expect to run into Mr. Shelly. I went to educate tribal leaders in Arizona about stereotypes of our Native people. I also went to talk to our local senators as well as our congressmen and congresswomen about the issue as well. It was good to see so much support for the Change the Name movement. Many tribal members and legislative folks knew about the issue. The support was there and it was great to see.

At the end of the opening ceremony, I ran into Shelly. At first meeting he was nice, kind, and inviting, that was until he realized who I was. It took a minute, but then he said, “Oh I see,” and he put his head down and smiled. He then blurted, “I don’t see anything wrong with it! I love being called a R*dsk*n!” People began to watch. A gentleman came around and appeared to be very interested in what we were talking about (my guess, he was a lawyer). I was kind of embarrassed at his response and I lowered my voice and spoke softer as I attempted to remind this president that the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution against the R-word and there is a tremendous amount of response and opposition for the name in Indian country. Shelly cut me off stating, “The youth are all OK with it! If we get rid of it then we have to get rid of all of the mascots. To me, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I am proud of it.”

I then again attempted to talk about how the mascots on the Navajo Nation are up to the Navajo to decide and that the Natives have no ownership with the Washington football team. He cut me off again by turning to his side in an attempt to walk off. He stated, “Well, have a good day.” I then said, “Mr. President, I just want to say, the gentleman inside (during the opening ceremony) spoke about listening to our youth, understanding our youth, and taking care of our youth. I feel I am still in a youth and I am asking you to please re-consider the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise involvement with the Washington team.” He stated, “Have a good day,” and turned to his wife and walked off.

I walked off as well and felt almost hurt. Later, a friend of mine said, “Why even talk to him?” As if to know that attempting to talk to him is like beating a dead horse. I guess I felt I needed to have a human-to-human interaction or a personal conversation about the issue. Without the press, without the football tickets, without the box seats, without the protest, without the hoo-rah – just a decent conversation, Diné to Diné, and a leader to his constituent.

I guess it was beating a dead horse. Nothing came of it. What astonishes me the most about that encounter is how unsympathetic he was to the cause. To me, a Diné person, a person born and raised on the Navajo Nation, a person who speaks the Diné language, and a young person who has been fighting this fight for over eight years, I know that I have the right to question our leader. As a constituent, I have the right to ask these questions that affect our community. Ben Shelly was just as dismissive as Dan Snyder was to me.

Nonetheless, I will move on and continue to focus on changing the name and the mascot. I hope the future Navajo Nation president will listen to the youth and our younger leaders. We are not here to wreak havoc; we are here to make change. Change evolves as time does, as generations do, and what may seem like a fight now may not have been considered when Mr. Shelly was in his youth. What a leader should do is listen to their people, listen to their elders, their youth and others.

This is not only a belief I hold, but was also discussed right there on the senate floor that day during my encounter with Shelly. The Chairman of the Hopi tribe spoke about the importance of our youth, how we must listen to them. Without our youth our heritage as Native people would end. I was also reminded at this event of how I am an advocate just like any politician or president. I was reminded that although I am an advocate against Native mascots, I am also a public servant who is here to serve those who need to be represented. I take that responsibly with respect, dignity, courage, and with humility.

What we know is there is a tremendous amount of respect for this movement and that is very apparent. One man’s choice to go against his own people is just that, one man. In the grand scheme of things it was a personal choice on his part, not the choice of the Navajo Nation.

Amanda Blackhorse. Photo courtesy Malcolm Benally

Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Kayenta, Arizona on the Navajo Nation.

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tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
I had stopped counting the number of "I"'s after 20 times throughout the writer's article. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Therefore, the article is really about the writer's issues than Ben Shelly. I don't never really liked Ben Shelly as a Politician, but in light of the writer sharing her grievances to the public (WITHOUT) giving Ben Shelly the proper forum and time to reply, i am siding with Ben Shelly or any other Navajo President. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> excerpt taken from AZ Indian affairs flyer: "There are others areas that seem to overlap and involve the distribution of public services such as behavioral health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention. Additional contributing factors that compromise public safety include domestic violence, gang activity, and truancy. Unfortunately, there are an overwhelming number of social issues that are having an adverse impact on youth which leads to poor decision-making thus influencing the overall safety of a tribal community." >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> These clearly quite obviously factors that are of FUNDAMENTAL and BASIC greater concerns of Indian communities throughout the Great State of Arizona. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> My only hope is for these affluent people (navajo, native, non-native) and the growing influence of non_indian-native-indigenous people to step up and assist, help, confront or even challenge Federal, or State, or local, or Indian Tribal Governments in the provision of direct indian/native services to indian peoples! >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> While talking with Ben Shelly did the writer not once inquire or ask of current Navajo Government plans/policies of 'disseminating' the $550 MILLION dollars to navajo people to combat dire public safety issues of domestic violence, gangs, truancy, substance abuse, suicide preventions?

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
"how the mascots on the Navajo Nation are up to the Navajo to decide…" yet in a twisted rationalization, you publicly appear to TAKE AWAY the Navajo people's (Red Mesa, AZ community) decision to attend, participate in REDSKIN - Cardinals games in Glendale. Your I Am not Your Mascot campaign on one hand AGAIN criticizes the use of mascots and imaginary to all sport teams, but then AGAIN (not the first time), your Mascot campaign says its okay to let mascots prevail on the Navajo Nation. Racial agitation and directed anti-semitism (spelling) as it seems to suggest.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
What can be said but, "even Natives have traitors among them." Ben Shelley is obviously a reincarnated Cavalry soldier and one who likely escorted the Dine' on their long walk. Natives are just people and the likelihood that you'll find one to put the finger on his own people is good. After all, the Crow helped Custer, and several Apache helped track down Geronimo. The sad thing is that Mr. Shelley is a sell-out and doesn't REALLY represent his people!

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
Scanning the article and then reading the comments made me gasp, and thereafter “I” re-read the commentary by Ms. Blackhorse. Her beliefs and action brings out deep emotions people on either side but tmsry11 took a big piece of the cake to a point where “I” felt an urge to throw in my two-cents on this issue. “I” never thought about the issue very much because I feel Native people have many bigger fishes to fry. However, the comment injecting "anti-Semitism" jerked me away from morning chopping wood chore. The article may have side stepped the rubrics of journalism; “I” felt it was okay because it is an opinion by MS Blackhorse. “I” am trying to understand both sides of the issue. Personally, the mascot Redskins epitomizes a cunning and powerful adversary, and the name does not imply or represent a negative attack on the American Indigenous populations. Some may say, “why not the Washington Spics, Wops, Niggers, Dago or Sambos” as a comparative reasoning. I disagree, I think the word “Redskins” has honor in it and the word came from the frustration of the colonialist. We are intelligent and have a beautiful spiritual outlook on life as a people. We can help erase the hurt from words. In truth, English is a highly coded language intended to demonstrate intelligence. It is a language from people that “THINK” they are superior to all human races.