“Redskins” Is a Racial Slur Dating Back to 1755

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By Britnae Purdy


The Washington Redskins are again facing criticism over their racially-insensitive name.  Both a case with the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and a bill originating in the House of Representatives are urging the team to rethink the name. The team has long been under fire from Native American organizations who claim the team name is a shameful racial slur, and that it should not be allowed to remain the football mascot of the nation’s capital. Opponents of the change say that the name is meant to honor, not disparage, Native Americans.

In late March, plaintiffs in the case Blackhorse v. Pro Football, filed in 2006, spoke in front of the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board during a hearing on whether the team’s exclusive rights to the Redskins name and logo should be revoked on  grounds that the federally registered trademark is offensive. The board cannot force the team to change its name nor extract reparations, but the plaintiffs are hoping that the financial strain caused by losing the trademark would force the team to reconsider. As Redskins lawyer Robert Raskopf said, the team would suffer “every imaginable loss you can think of if it no longer had exclusive marketing rights to its name.”

In a previous  case in 1999, Pro Football Inc. v. Harjo, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled to cancel the Redskins’ trademark  registrations, but the case was overturned due to a technicality in 2003 – the judges claimed that the plaintiffs should have filed their claims when they were younger. This principle is known as laches, and stipulates that a plaintiff must not demonstrate “unreasonable delay in pursuing a claim.” The leader in the current case, Amanda Blackhorse, is only 31 years old, so the group hopes that technicality will be a non-issue this time around.  Life-long advocate of Native rights Susan Shown Harjo, who served as lead plaintiff in the 1999 case, is mentoring the current group closely. The group argues that the Redskins trademark is offensive and therefore violates the Lanham Act, which stipulates that “No trade-mark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless it (a) Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

“They’re trying to make money,” Harjo said of the Redskins team, “and not caring who is injured in the process. I don’t think they wake up or go to sleep dreaming of ways to hurt Native people. I think they wake up and go to sleep thinking of ways to make money – off hurting Native people.”

Just days after the hearing, members of the House of Representatives presented the Non-Disparagement of American Indians in Trademark Registrations Act of 2013. This bill would cancel all current federal trademarks for any business using the name “redskins” and would prohibit future trademarks of the name. The bill was authored by Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and originally cosponsored by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and representatives Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Karen Bass (D-California).The bill has also gained support from John Lewis (D-Georgia), Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), Donna Christenson (D-Virgin Islands), Michael Honda (D-Calif.), and co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). The bill has been endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians, International Indian Treaty Council, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, and the Morning Star Institute.

The bill makes a moral argument for changing the name, stating that it “will not improve the economy, public health, the environment, or national defense. But, it is one of the more profound steps that Congress can take…This bill would address a continuing wrong, an error that the Trademark Office itself has admitted. It would be a small, but symbolically important action for the federal government to correct its past legally erroneous decision to register ‘redskins’ trademarks.”

Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of two Native Americans currently serving in Congress, views the name as blatantly racist and outdated.

“Come on,” he says, “this is the 21st century. [Washington D.C.] is the capital of political correctness on the planet. It is very, very offensive. This isn’t like warriors or chiefs. It’s not a term of respect, and it’s needlessly offensive to a large part of our population. They just don’t happen to live around Washington D.C.”

Neither the Redskins’ owner nor lawyers have commented on the case, as of yet, but the team has issued  a set of blog posts on their website highlighting high school teams that have retained the name “Redskins.” Supposedly meant to drum up a nostalgic pride in the name, the stories have had the unintended side-effect of causing many more high school teams to change their names. According to Harjo, two-thirds of American  team names with Native references have been changed since 1979, with less than 1,000 such teams remaining.

Plaintiffs in the case point out that the term “redskins” has origins in the Phips Proclamation of 1755, which declared a war against all Native Americans in the Massachusetts colonies. Rewards were allotted for the scalps of Native American men, women, and children. The bloody scalps were termed “redskins.” The House bill cites numerous reasons why the name should be changed, including the following:

(1) The use of the terms ‘redskin’ and ‘redskins’ in trademarks is widely understood to refer to or imply a negative reference to Native American persons or peoples, or both.

(2) The term ‘redskin’ has been demonstrated by overwhelming linguistic and historical evidence to constitute a disparaging epithet insulting to Native American persons or peoples, or both.

(3) Major Native American organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the Native American Journalists Association, the Native American Rights Fund, the Morning Star Institute, the International Indian Treaty Council, and the National Indian Youth Council, have opposed the continued use of the term ‘redskin’ in trademarks or as the name of sports teams.

(4) Recent psychological evidence has demonstrated the general negative effects associated with references in sports to Native American people.

(5) Trademarks containing the term ‘redskin’, or any derivation of the term, should not continue to enjoy the benefits of Federal registration.

The bill has not yet been reported on or debated in the House or Senate. The trademark case could take up to 18 months to reach a decision.


(Photo from NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/02/07/171425340/after-more-than-20-years-push-to-change-redskins-name-continues – Al Bello/Getty Images)