Indian mascots back in court

Federal judge to hear latest arguments on July 23

 A federal judge this week is scheduled to hear the latest arguments in a lawsuit seeking to ban the use of derogatory American Indian names and symbols as mascots by professional sports teams.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly will conduct a one-day hearing in Pro Football, Inc. v. Harjo et al on July 23, Wednesday, at 10 a.m., in Washington on the motions for summary judgment filed by both sides. The U.S. District Courthouse is at 333 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.

The 11-year-old case was spurred by the Washington NFL football team, which uses the term "Redskins" as its mascot.

Suzan Shown Harjo, President and Executive Director of the non-profit Morning Star Institute, who has led the effort opposing the use of derogatory Indian names in sports, said, " 'Redskins' is the most derogatory term for Native Peoples in the English language."

Ms. Harjo is calling on all to attend the hearings on Wednesday as a show of support for the cause to end the use of derogatory names and symbols in professional sports.

The Morning Star Institute is a national Indian rights organization founded in 1984 for Native Peoples’ traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion and research. A leading organization in cultural property protection and stereotype busting, Morning Star sponsors the Just Good Sports project and organized the first National Day of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places (2003). Morning Star sponsored The 1992 Alliance (1990-1993) and the initial lawsuit, Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. (1992-1999).

Ms. Harjo and six other Native Americans filed the case regarding the name of Washington’s professional football team before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Board in 1992. They won in 1999, when a three-judge panel unanimously decided to cancel federal protections for the team’s name because it “may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute.” Their victory was appealed and now is in federal district court. Ms. Harjo’s essay on the case, Fighting Name-Calling: Challenging “Redskins” in Court, is published in Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy (University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

The offensive term originated during the early days of European bounty hunting of Native people. When delivery of wagons and gunnysacks of dead Indians became too cumbersome, bounty payers permitted scalps in lieu of heads and the bloody “red skins” of Native children, women and men instead of their whole bodies as proof of “Indian kill.”

“Redskins” is a racial slur and never has been an honorific. Most modern dictionaries and encyclopedias note that the term is offensive and pejorative.

No Native American people, nations or organizations use the term “Redskins” to refer to themselves.

Native Americans have called for the team’s name to be changed in every decade since the 1940s. The overwhelming majority of Native Peoples have urged the team’s owners to change the name since it was first licensed by the federal government in 1967.


The team’s owners have ignored Native American views, insisting that the disparaging term is not offensive and is one that honors Native Americans. No owners of the team have afforded Native American leaders the courtesy of a meeting since the early 1970s.

The Washington Post editorialized for the team to change its name in 1992, saying that “now is the time to do it.”

The editorial board opined:

“… to say that the use of the term ‘Redskins’ is well-intentioned or that it is not meant to be objectionable sidesteps the real issue. This is not a term fashioned by American Indians. The nickname was assigned to them, just as the pejorative designation ‘darkies’ was once imposed on African-American slaves. That was wrong then; this is wrong now. That the usage is common and innocently repeated out of habit makes it no less of an insensitive or insulting remark to those who are on the receiving end. We can do better.”

Seven prominent Native Americans filed suit on September 10, 1992, before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, seeking cancellation of the federal trademark protections of the name of Washington’s professional football team.

The suit was filed by Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), Raymond D. Apodaca (Ysleta del Sur Pueblo), Manley A. Begay, Jr., Ph.D. (Navajo), Vine Deloria, Jr., Esq. (Standing Rock Sioux), Norbert S. Hill, Jr. (Oneida), William A. Means, Jr. (Oglala Lakota) and Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo).

The major Native American tribal, educational, legal, journalism, arts, activists and youth organizations specifically endorse this lawsuit. Their members and constituents comprise more than one-half of the American Indian people in the U.S. today.

The Native American Rights Fund filed an amici curiae brief in support of the Native American parties in Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc., on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association and the National Indian Youth Council. The PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board heard oral arguments in the case on May 27, 1998.

On April 2, 1999, a three-judge panel of the TTAB ruled on the Native American side in a 145-page decision. The judges decided to cancel the federal trademarks for the team’s name “on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute.”

On May 26, 1999, leaders of thirteen national Indian organizations wrote to the National Football League commissioner to “urge you to change the contemptible name to something that will not disparage Native Americans or any other segment of American society. Now, with new ownership for the team and on the threshold of a new millennium, it would seem an ideal time for the NFL to assume a position of leadership to bring professional sports into the modern era.” They also wrote:

“ We, the undersigned, collectively represent and serve a majority of the diverse Native Peoples in the United States….Some of the undersigned organizations and individuals have worked for many decades to persuade past owners of the Washington team to change the name, which is the most disparaging and offensive epithet that is used to refer to us in the English language.
“The NFL and the team’s owners have not accorded Native American representatives the fundamental courtesy of meeting on the subject of the team’s name since the early 1970s. Responses of subsequent owners to meeting requests and name-change urgings became progressively contentious over time, prompting the 1992 filing of the lawsuit of which you are well aware and which we enthusiastically support.
“The NFL’s and team’s spokespersons maintain that the team’s name honors Native Americans. After considering the voluminous evidentiary record, a federal panel of judges has disagreed with the Washington football organization’s position, ruling on the Native American side of the case that the team’s name is not now and never was an honorific. We applaud the decision by the cognizant federal trademark board’s judges to cancel the federal protections for the name….”

Signatories to the letter to the NFL were the leaders of the following organizations: American Indian Movement Grand Council; Americans for Indian Opportunity; Atlatl—National Service Organization for Native American Arts; Indian Art Northwest; International Indian Treaty Council; The Morning Star Institute; National Coalition to End Racism in Sports and the Media; National Congress of American Indians; National Indian Education Association; Native American Artists Association; Native American Bar Association; Native American Journalists Association; and the Native American Rights Fund.

The NFL did not respond to the Native American leaders’ letter.

The Washington team’s owners responded in June of 1999 by appealing the decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They claim that the name change would cost too much and that the trademark law’s Lanham Act, Sect. 2, which has gone unchallenged since the 1940s, is unconstitutionally vague. Specifically, they say they do not know what “disparaging” means.

After four years of briefings, depositions and a general paper chase, there will be a hearing on July 23, 2003, on the motions that both sides have filed for summary judgment.

“We call upon the sports and advertising worlds and all those with influence in shaping popular culture to forego the use of dehumanizing, stereotyping, cartooning images and information regarding our peoples, and to recognize their responsibility for the emotional violence their fields have perpetuated against our children.” Statement of The 1992 Alliance and The Elders Circle, October 1990.

Native Americans have a higher rate of teen suicide than any other segment of American Society – four times the national average. Low self-esteem is the major causal factor in teenage suicides and suicide attempts. Contributing to the low self-esteem of Native teenagers is the bombardment of name-calling and negative imaging in popular culture, especially in sports.

Native American parents, psychologists and leaders believe that this emotional violence against Native young people is directly tied to, and sets the stage for, physical violence against Native people generally.

In 1970, the University of Oklahoma became the first school athletic program to drop its mascot, “Little Red.” At that time, there were more than 3,000 Native references in American educational and professional sports. Today, 33 years later, there are fewer than 1,100.


About The Morning Star Institute
The Morning Star Institute 611 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE Washington, DC 20003 (202) 547-5531 / 546-6724-fax)

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