Celebration spread throughout Indian country June 18 given a ruling from the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceling the Washington Redskins trademark registration.
The revocation of six of the team’s trademarks was necessary, the USPTO ruled, because the football team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”
Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the case against the team, was “elated” by the news, according to her lawyer, Jesse Witten, of the Drinker Biddle firm.
“It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans,” Blackhorse said in a statement. “We filed our petition eight years ago, and it has been a tough battle ever since.”
Blackhorse hopes this ruling “brings us a step closer to the inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed.
“The team’s name is racist and derogatory,” Blackhorse added. “I’ve said it before, and I will say it again – if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
Witten noted that the fight has been long for Blackhorse and several other Indians who have sued the team, trying to have the name revoked over the course of two decades and counting.
“We hope that the litigation is now over,” Witten said. “It has been ongoing for 22 years before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and the federal courts.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee citizen who has been battling against the team’s name for decades, noted that this is the second time the trademark judges have ruled that the Washington franchise name disparages Native Americans. They first did so in 1999, but the team fought the ruling on a technicality, which eventually led to the Blackhorse case. The Supreme Court declined to take on Harjo’s case in 2009.
Harjo is taking the latest development in stride, and she suspects it will be another step toward ultimately getting rid of the name once and for all. “It’s a good day to win!” she said. “I could not be more delighted about their decision today.”
But, Snyder is again keen to fight, releasing a statement from a lawyer indicating that this ruling will not change the team’s name.
“We’ve seen this story before,” Bob Raskopf, a trademark lawyer for the Washington Redskins, said in a statement. “And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.
“This ruling – which of course we will appeal – simply addresses the team’s federal trademark registrations, and the team will continue to own and be able to protect its marks without the registrations,” added Raskopf. “The registrations will remain effective while the case is on appeal.”
Raskopf pointed to a dissenting opinion in the ruling that states, “the same evidence previously found insufficient to support cancellation” here “remains insufficient” and does not support cancellation.
Still, the ruling means that it could eventually be harder for the team to enforce its trademarks, which could impact the financial bottom line for the franchise.
“Time is on the side of those who want a change in the team’s name,” Witten said. “The trademark dispute will not be the factor that leads to a change, but the public’s understanding that the team name is an unfortunate relic from a different era is what is going to lead to the change in the name.”
And Indian country could not be happier.
“The U.S. Patent Office has now restated the obvious truth that Native Americans, civil rights leaders, athletes, religious groups, state legislative bodies, members of Congress and the president have all echoed: taxpayer resources cannot be used to help private companies profit off the promotion of dictionary defined racial slurs,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Executive Director Jackie Pata in a joint statement. “If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans.
“On behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation, the Change the Mascot campaign and NCAI, we would like to sincerely thank Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse for their tireless efforts that helped lead to today’s historic milestone,” Halbritter and Pata added.
“It’s a good day for Indian country as we applaud the USPTO decision that the Redskins name is disparaging for our people, and the name Redskins used by Washington pro-football team must be cancelled,” said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. “We appreciate effort of the 50 senators and everyone in America who sees this as wrong as well.”
Hall was referring to a letter recently sent by half of the Senate to Snyder urging him to change the name. President Barack Obama and congressional members from both sides of the aisle have made similar arguments.
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“This decision is a step forward for Indian country and for all Americans who champion tolerance,” said Sen. Jon Tester (-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in a statement. “No team or organization should profit from a dictionary-defined racial slur.”