2020 TRUE WEST AWARD: 'RECLAIMING ONE STAR'
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
This is not to suggest for one second that the reason Washington’s NFL franchise finally dropped its deeply embedded racist nickname last summer was because, just four months earlier, the DCPA Theatre Company presented a new play calling for the team to finally drop its deeply embedded racist nickname.
No, the team finally dropped its deeply embedded racist nickname because of the reckoning that followed the police murder of George Floyd. Namely, when major sponsor FedEx publicly urged team owner Dan Snyder to step away from the name “R*dsk*ns,” and team investors joined in support.
In other words: Washington’s NFL franchise finally dropped its deeply embedded racist nickname only when it became financially threatening to an owner who had been quoted in USA Today as saying: “We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER. … And you can use caps.”
Until July 13 ... when HE DID.
It’s just nice when the timing on these things works out just right.
“Reclaiming One Star” became a historically significant play the moment DCPA Artistic Director Chris Coleman commissioned attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle to write it with activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who has been at the forefront of every major battle for Native rights for the past six decades.
When it was presented as a featured reading at the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit in February, it became the first story written by indigenous women ever to be told on a Denver Center stage in its 40-year history. Asked what that milestone meant to her, Harjo told me in an interview, “In a word: Everything.”
'Reclaiming One Star' playwrights Suzan Shown Harjo, left, and Mary Kathryn Nagle.
The name change was something Harjo had been working to make happen for 58 of the team’s 88 years in existence. She had spent 17 of those years as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to change the name, but to no avail.
The play destroys the myth behind the false lore that has been passed down for generations by the Washington R*dsk*ns. (The vowels are omitted here at the request of the playwrights.) The team claims the nickname pays homage to its first coach, allegedly a “full-blooded Sioux.” But in truth, William “Lone Star” Dietz (a man of German descent) had been sent to jail back in 1919 for stealing the identity of a young Native American soldier named James One Star who had died in World War I. He did it so he could play on a prestigious all-Native American football team coached by the legendary Pop Warner. But back in those days, a person’s criminal record didn’t follow him quite so stickily as it might today. And so, the lie lived on.
"Reclaiming One Star," equal parts detective thriller and courtroom drama, gives an inside look at the real-life legal intrigue behind the case, including those who defend the team’s original name.
For the record: “What’s so offensive about the name is the skinning of our people for bounty pay,” Harjo said. “Colonies and companies and later whole states issued bounties for dead Indians. And they skinned us. They actually took our skin and our body parts into the bounty payers to collect their blood money. The scalps were the proof of dead Indians they needed. Sixty cents for men, 40 cents for women, 20 cents for children. Now, how do you know the age and the gender without scalping the private parts of the person? That’s the horror, and that’s the nightmare that’s called up when we hear that term.
“R*dsk*ns is a word that really should be right up there with the n-word in people's consciousness.”
Nagle describes the naming controversy as a simple case of ownership. “It’s an open-and-shut case of racial and cultural appropriation. Non-Native Americans do not own Native identity,” she said. “We are not the property of non-Native Americans. And our identity is not for sale, period.”
No one who attended the Colorado New Play Summit reading in February could have realistically expected the team’s 88-years of entrenchment to crumble just a few months later. Still, there was something both reverent and magical about watching the story come to life at the Denver Center on sacred ground that was once home to Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Utes and a variety of other Native peoples.
The play, which included Oscar winner Wes Studi among its cast, spoke to the power of live theatre to help audiences gain a better understanding of unfamiliar societal issues. To perhaps recalibrate engrained or previously unchallenged assumptions. To better grasp the ongoing damage of harmful stereotypes.
It was a monumental achievement for Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee. She has worked to eliminate more than 4,000 racist mascots from elementary schools, high schools, colleges and professional sports teams since 1962 – including playing an instrumental role in persuading Arvada High School to change its nickname from R*dsk*ns to Reds in 1993 (and its mascot from an Indian to a bulldog). In 2014, Harjo was conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
It has been five months since the R*dsk*ns announced they will adopt a new nickname but, now well into the 2020 season, they have not yet settled on one. Instead, the team is going by the most awkward temporary name in all of sports; “The Washington NFL Football Team.” That’s in part because team ownership has not only been distracted by allegations of workplace sexual harassment, it’s become the victim of some greed of its own. The team reportedly knows what nickname it wants to use next, but dozens of opportunists beat them to the punch by preemptively filing trademarks for more than 30 potential names. Which means one of those cagey entrepreneurs is in for a very big payday – at the team’s expense.
Harjo will wait to celebrate her victory until she sees just how far the football team is willing to fully distance itself from its past. “I’m pleased with the progress, but we’ve been close before,” Harjo told The Washington Post. "We’ve learned that you don’t dance in the end zone just because you got close to the goal line. You dance after you score."
On top of everything else: Harjo learned of the team's reversal while recovering from the coronavirus last July.
“COVID is giving me a greater sense of mortality and a renewed urgency to do what I can do — now,” she said. “There is a greater need to get some things settled — on the streets, in the boardrooms, in the kitchens — because more of us have become aware that our country is on shaky ground.”
Video bonus: Our interview with Mary Kathryn Nagle
A DCPA Theatre Company Commission and featured reading at the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit
Cast and crew: