Graphic: MGN Online/Timothy 6X

WASHINGTON ( – The U.S. Supreme Court will not intervene, ending a 17-year-old case against the Washington NFL franchise over its name–the “Redskins”–which Native Americans contend is a racist label, the Court announced Nov. 16.

The name “is patently offensive, disparaging and demeaning and perpetrates a centuries-old stereotype,” according to the National Congress of American Indians in a court brief.

Without comment, the court let stand an earlier appeals court ruling that said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had waited too long to file their initial challenge before the U.S. Patent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.


‘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. To many Native Americans, the term ‘Redskins’ is associated with the barbaric practice of scalping.’
—Suzan Shown Harjo

The battle began in 1992–the 500th anniversary year of the “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere by explorer Christopher Columbus–when seven activists, led by lead plaintiffs Suzan Shown Harjo and Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, challenged the team’s trademarks issued in 1967.

The Indians won a decision seven years later from the Trademark Board, which said 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 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,’” National Congress of American Indians argued in its court papers filed before the Supreme Court announced its decision.

After natives initially persuaded the Trademark Trial Appeal Board that the name was offensive and illegal in 1999, the team challenged the 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 has now let that decision stand, without considering the merits of the challenge to the team name.

Meanwhile, Ms. Harjo, who is an attorney, said that a new suit has already been filed. A group of six younger Indian plaintiffs filed the exact same claim, Blackhorse v. Pro Football against the team in 2006, but their case was put on hold until this lawsuit Harjo v. Pro could be resolved. The Blackhorse case will now make its way through the legal system.

The Indian groups and other challengers to the Washington team’s name said that in 1968 they began urging schools to voluntarily drop names tied to Native Americans. Hundreds of high schools and colleges have discontinued their use of Indian names and mascots.

At the same time, while it cannot directly ban certain nicknames, current National Collegiate Athletic Association policy prevents schools with American Indian-related names from participating in championship or playoff games.

In 2005, the NCAA listed 18 schools that would not be allowed to participate in postseason play until they changed the “hostile and abusive” American Indian mascots or images they used. Stanford University, St. Bonaventure University, The College of William & Mary and Dartmouth College all dropped their Indian monikers.

Florida State University–the Seminoles–and the University of Utah–the Utes–were given exemptions from the ban since they had worked with the local tribes to gain their permission and to ensure the names and images were used in a respectful manner, according to the IPS news service. Utah had been known as the “Redskins” until the 1970s.

The University of Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State University and Southeast Missouri State University are also among the universities that have changed their nicknames from “Indians” in recent years. The sports teams of Miami University, in Ohio, were known as the “Redskins” until 1997.

In addition, the National Basketball Association’s Washington Bullets changed its name to the “Wizards” in 1997 when owner Abe Pollin felt “Bullets” was too violent a name, particularly in Washington which at the time was nicknamed the “murder capital of the nation.”

In the rejected lawsuit, a group of law professors filed briefs on the “laches” question, arguing that timeliness is irrelevant when a trademark is disparaging to a part of the population. They were joined by a group of psychologists who spoke to the negative effects of nicknames like “redskins” being used by colleges and sports teams.

Meanwhile, teams, like the Washington NFL franchise and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, are singled out by Native groups as the most derogatory.

The Cleveland team’s primary logo, called Chief Wahoo, depicts the bright red face of a cartoon caricature American Indian with red feather, headband, toothy smile and large nose. It has been condemned for years, but the team has refused to consider changing it.

In urging the justices to reject the appeal, lawyers for pro football said the appeal would have tested the team’s exclusive right to use the trademark, not whether it had to abandon the nickname altogether.

The lawyers also said the team has invested millions of dollars in promoting and advertising the trademark. Team officials have also maintained that “the name is meant to honor the proud heritage of Native Americans.” Indian groups, however remain unconvinced.

“At least five newspapers have adopted policies forbidding the use of ‘Redskins’ to identify sports teams: the Oregonian (Portland, Ore.); the Portland (Maine) Press Herald; The St. Cloud (Minn.) Times; the Kansas City (Mo.) Star, and the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star,” the Native American Journalists Association said in a friend of the court brief.

The Native groups which joined in friend of the court filings in the now dismissed suit were: The National Congress of American Indians; Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma; National Indian Education Association; National Indian Youth Council; National Indian Child Welfare Association; American Indian Higher Education Consortium; American Indian College Fund; National Native American Law Student Association;

Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism; Capitol Area Indian Resources; American Indian Studies–University of Illinois (Urbana Champaign); Native American House, a student services unit at the University of Illinois; Wisconsin Indian Education Association “Indian” Mascot and Logo Taskforce; Native Americans at Dartmouth; Native Americans at Brown; National Institute for Native Leadership in Higher Education; Society of American Indian Government Employees; Native American Journalists Association; Native American Finance Officers Association; Indigenous Democratic Network; Americans for Indian Opportunity; Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras and the International Indian Treaty Council.

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