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Native people demand: Change racist NFL team name

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Nov 19, 2013 - 9:06:55 AM

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WASHINGTON ( - Even as the Washington NFL team suffers from lackluster performance on the field, the management and players are facing increased hostility from fans and the general public off the field.

In Minneapolis, Minn. Nov. 7 before the team lost its sixth of nine games to the then 1-7 Minnesota Vikings, as many as 1,000 protesters rallied outside the Metrodome demanding that the team change the “racist and disrespectful” name “Redksins.”

Protesters, led by American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, carried flags and signs. At a news conference earlier that day, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called the name “racist” and suggested every member of Congress should boycott the team to put pressure on its owners.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura spoke at the rally, saying he always tried to avoid saying the offensive name when he covered the team as a sports broadcaster. “This name is wrong. It’s just plain wrong,” Mr. Ventura said. What would happen if a sports team in Birmingham, Ala., was named “The Slaves” and had a Black person as its mascot? the former governor asked. “What kind of outrage would there be at that? Well, this is the same thing.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak released a statement saying the name disrespects indigenous people. Six members of the Minneapolis City Council also sent a letter to the team’s owner and to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calling the nickname and team mascot racist.

The Washington D.C. Council also weighed in, voting unanimously on Nov. 5 to adopt a resolution which at one time declared the name “insulting and debasing” before it was watered down on its final passage.

“Enough is enough, the name must go,” said D.C. Councilmember David Grosso about his name change proposal. The suggestion that the team name and logo should be kept as some symbol of the team’s heritage “is akin to saying to Native people (that) your pain has less worth than our football memories.”

President Barack Obama has even said that if he owned the team he would consider changing its name because of its offensive meaning. But D.C. officials have no sway over the team, which plays its games in a stadium in suburban Maryland, and maintains its practice facilities in suburban Virginia.

Team owner Daniel Snyder has refused to consider changing the name, insisting that he considers the epithet a “badge of honor.” Scholars however, disabuse that notion.

When football fans insist they are “honoring” the bravery of Native Americans by imitating tribal dress and customs, they simply don’t understand according to Dr. C. Richard King, co-editor of Encyclopedia of Native Americans in Sports, and a professor at Washington State University.

Those who believe the names are honorific are simply holding on to a “sincere fiction” Dr. King told attendees at a conference to discuss the team name called by Native groups at the same time the NFL owners were also meeting in Washington. The reality is that objectifying Native people with sports team names in Washington, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Atlanta, is ugly and offensive, Dr. King said.

Meanwhile, every week when the Washington team plays away from home, radio ads, sponsored by the Oneida Nation’s campaign “” are broadcast in the host city to raise awareness nationally about the insult.

And still, yet to be announced, is a decision pending before the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to revoke the trademark protection which gives Mr. Snyder the exclusive right to market paraphernalia with the team name and logo. The name “is patently offensive, disparaging and demeaning and perpetrates a centuries-old stereotype,” according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in a court brief which was argued before the patent and trade board in March.

That is a new case which was filed before the patent board by a group of younger plaintiffs after the original case was overturned. In 1999, a Native group led by attorney Suzan Shown Harjo, prevailed before the Trademark Trial Appeal Board when it ruled that the name could be interpreted as offensive to Native Americans. Trademark law prohibits registration of a name that “may disparage ... persons, living or dead ... or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

The team challenged that decision in court, arguing the legal doctrine known as “laches,” that the plaintiffs had waited too long before they legally challenged the name. In 2003 a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the team. An appeals court upheld that decision and the Supreme Court let that decision stand, without considering the merits of the challenge to the team name.

Since then, the trademark office has implicitly recognized a shift in how the word “redskins” is viewed. From 1996 to 2002, it rebuffed the team at least three times when it tried to register new brands using the word. In each case, examiners cited disparagement as the grounds for action.

For instance, dictionaries today routinely label the word “redskin” as being offensive. Until the late 1960s, they typically identified it as a neutral term.

Team owner Snyder’s refusal to consider a name change, “is not the final word,” Ms. Harjo told The Final Call ahead of the meeting NFL league officials had with Native representatives. “The final word belongs to the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board, its judges. It belongs to the American people. It belongs to the NFL. There are lots of people with a stake in this.

“Abe Pollin (the late owner of The Washington Wizards NBA team) personally at one point, let him know that when he changed from ‘Bullets’ to ‘Wizards’ that he did not lose money, and that it was the right thing to do, and that he recommended Snyder change the name. He reported back to us that he would not do it, that he was adamant in his opposition to us,” Ms. Harjo continued.

“We hope that the three judges will give the Blackhorse plaintiffs—our Native young people who have carried on our lawsuit to cancel the existing trademarks—we hope that they will give them the same ruling on the merits that they gave us, which was unanimously to cancel the trademark licenses that the trademark board has already admitted in 1999 that they should not have granted in the first place,” she said.

The term “redskins” actually refers to the Indian skins and body parts—including genitalia—that bounty hunters had to show in order to receive payment for killing Indians, Ms. Harjo told The Final Call. “To many Native Americans, the term ‘Redskins’ is associated with the barbaric practice of scalping,” Ms. Harjo said.

“The organizations and Indian tribes stand together to express with one voice their collective opinion on the fundamental fact underlying this case: the ‘Redskins’ trademark is disparaging to Native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as ‘blood-thirsty savages,’ ‘noble warriors,’ and an ethnic group ‘frozen in history,’ ” NCAI argued in its court papers filed before the Supreme Court announced its decision against the Native American interests.