WASHINGTON - Suzan Shown Harjo still becomes tense when she recalls the only Washington Redskins home game she attended, nearly 40 years ago.
After she moved to Washington, she and her husband received free tickets. Fans sitting nearby, apparently amused that American Indians were in their midst, pawed their hair and poked them, "not in an unfriendly way, but in a scary way," Harjo said.
"We didn't know what was next," she said.
Harjo and her husband left the game, but they never left Washington, and the incident fueled her long battle to get the team to change its name. Since the 1960s, Harjo has been at the center of efforts to persuade schools, colleges and professional sports teams to drop American Indian names and mascots that some consider derogatory.
The fight has escalated in recent days as groups have intensified lobbying efforts and organized protests, even prompting President Barack Obama to weigh in on the issue.
The debate tends to settle on one central question: How many people must be offended by a team's name for a change to be warranted? The Redskins, of the National Football League, cite polling in which most respondents said they were not offended by the name, while those lobbying the team to drop its name dispute the accuracy of that data and say that, no matter, the word is widely regarded as derogatory.
More than two-thirds of the roughly 3,000 teams with American Indian mascots have dropped them, many voluntarily and without incident. Along the way, Harjo, the director of the Morning Star Institute, a group that promotes Native American causes, became something of a godmother to the cause of eliminating disparaging mascots.
"She has led this fight early," said Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has paid for advertisements calling on the Redskins to abandon their name. "We stand on her shoulders."
But Harjo, who prefers the term Native American, considers her work unfinished because professional teams, most notably the Redskins, have been vocal about keeping their names. In May, Daniel Snyder, the Redskins' owner, echoed his predecessors when he vowed never to change the name.
The Redskins, playing in the nation's capital and the country's wealthiest league, have remained steadfast as many other teams have changed their nicknames, dating to the 1960s, when the owner at the time, George Preston Marshall, opposed desegregation. Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the team in the 1970s, met with American Indians to discuss the team's name, but little followed.