Ten members of Congress sent a letter May 13 to Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL’s Washington, D.C., franchise, urging him to change the club's name. Similar letters were sent to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, FedEx President and Chief Executive Officer Frederick Smith (FedEx is a sponsor of Snyder’s franchise, and the team plays at FedExField), and the owners of the NFL’s other 31 clubs.
The 10 Congress members include the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin), Michael M. Honda (D-California), Donna M. Christensen (D-Virginia), Zoe Lofgren (D-California), Barbara Lee (D-California), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa).
In their letter to Snyder, the ten representatives stated, “Native Americans throughout the country consider the R-word a racial, derogatory slur akin to the N-word among African Americans or the W-word among Latinos. Such offensive epithets would no doubt draw widespread disapproval among the NFL’s fan base. Yet the national coverage of Washington’s NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans.”
The letter also states:
"The current Chairman and Chief of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis, recently stated in a joint statement that the [R-word] is ‘not just a racial slur or a derogatory term,’ but a painful ‘reminder of one of the most gruesome acts of . . . ethnic cleansing ever committed against the Penobscot people.’ The hunting and killing of Penobscot Indians like animals, as declared by Chief Francis, was ‘a most despicable and disgraceful act of genocide'…
"In this day and age, it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs. The usage of the [R-word] is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem. It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people.
"We look forward to working with you to find a solution to this important matter."
This congressional call to rename Snyder’s franchise follows the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013 (H.R. 1278), which was introduced on March 20 by Congressman Faleomavaega and cosponsored by 13 members of Congress. This legislation seeks to cancel the federal registrations of trademarks using the word redskin reference to Native Americans. It was referred to committee the day it was introduced. Snyder's team is also awaiting a ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board regarding its redskin trademark.
According to Faleomavaega's office, the Trademark Act of 1946 requires that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) not register any trademark that “[c]onsists of or comprises . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead…or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 15 U.S.C. §1502(a). Accordingly, the PTO has rejected four registration applications that Snyder’s franchise has submitted for trademarks which proposed to use the R-word – three times in 1996 and once in 2002. The applications were denied on grounds that the R-word is disparaging and a racial slur relative to Native Americans.
In a recent statement, the Native American Rights Fund elaborated on the PTO’s duty to the Native American community pursuant to the Trademark Act:
"Native nations and citizens have a treaty, trust and special relationship with the United States, and rely on the federal government more than any other segment of society to make certain that its actions do no harm. Because of the duty of care owed to Indian tribes and people by the Department of Commerce, it is incumbent upon them to strictly enforce the provisions of 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), in order to safeguard Indian tribes and citizens from racially or culturally disparaging federal trademarks. They are required by law to assess the issues in light of its federal Indian trust relationship and associated fiduciary duties to protect Indians and Indian culture from degrading federal trademark registrations. That trust relationship encompasses an affirmative duty on behalf of the Department of Commerce and the [Patent and Trademark Office] to protect tribal culture and safeguard Native Americans from racism in sports conducted under color of federal law."
In a May 9 article in USA Today, Snyder declared, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” As the ten Congress members note in their letter to Snyder, this position is inconsistent with the NFL’s Commitment to Diversity, which states in part (read the full text here): "Diversity is critically important to the NFL. It is a cultural and organizational imperative about dignity, respect, inclusion and opportunity…. Diversity is the right thing to do both for moral and ethical reasons as well as for the long-term business success of the League."
Meanwhile, H.R. 1278 has received widespread support from both Native American and non-Native American organizations across the nation. The National Congress of American Indians—"the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving tribal governments and communities"—recently stated: "This legislation will accomplish what Native American people, nations, and organizations have tried to do in the courts for almost twenty years – end the racist epithet that has served as the [name] of Washington’s pro football franchise for far too long."
The Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism states that the R-word is "hurtful and injurious to our youth, as well as the entire Native American population."
The Native American Finance Officers Association states: "The term has never been acceptable in the Native community and causes harm to the collective self-esteem and status of American Indians in the larger society. . . What should be viewed as a national embarrassment has somehow turned into a celebrated namesake for a national sport."
The American Indian Movement West states: "Our organization supports the goal of ridding the sports world of the disparaging name of the Washington pro football franchise. There is no question that this is a racist term that causes harm and injury, whether or not it is intended to do so, and must not be tolerated in decent society."
The United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. states: "Overcoming the social challenges resulting from industry branding and media exposure has taken generations for other groups. Native communities are on a similar journey. In our work to protect and promote our sovereignty rights at all levels, existing stereotypes, bigotry, and racist views about our people often get in the way of progress. This legislation will assist Tribes in promoting an understanding of American Indian culture, positive images of Indian Country, the effects of historic trauma, and the modern-day successes and challenges Tribes face as we seek to improve the standard of living within our communities."
In addition to the above organizations, there are at least 50 other tribes and organizations that have either disavowed the use of the term redskin or pledged their support for this bill. Track its progress here.