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Change will prevail

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In 1933 George Preston Marshall renamed his team the Washington Redskins, previously known as the Washington Braves, to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves. He did not seek federal trademark protection for the name until 1967, when students were trying to rid Oklahoma, Dartmouth, Stanford and other schools of their race-based stereotypes and were using the example of the Washington team name as the worst in the country. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) wrongly granted him and later owners six trademark licenses for this racial slur. 

Some suggest this action was in violation of the Trademark Act of 1946, or the Lanham Act, which directs the USPTO to refuse to register trademarks that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” In 1999 and again this year, the USPTO’s trademark judges canceled the existing federal trademarks, pending appeal, and its examining attorneys have denied a dozen requests for new trademarks.

{mosads}While pundits on both side of the argument dispute its origins, the term “redskins” is reminiscent of colonial times when, by governmental decree, Native Americans were hunted, killed, and scalped for bounty. The struggle to rid the sports world of this disgusting term is about that heinous history of commodifying native skins. 

In June of this year, the USPTO responded favorably to a petition filed by five young Native Americans, holding that the offending trademarks, owned by Pro-Football, Inc, (the entity that owns and operates the Washington franchise) were “disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” We applaud the USPTO’s cancellation of the six federal trademark registrations that use this disparaging term.

Foreseeing that current owner Dan Snyder would appeal the USPTO decision just like he did in 1999, historic legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives that would permanently clarify the Lanham Act to ensure that the derogatory term will never receive federal trademark protection again. H.R. 1278, the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013, now has more than 20 co-sponsors. 

As early as May 13, 2013, 10 members of the House also sent a joint letter to Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressing the necessity for H.R. 1278 and urging a name change for the Washington franchise. Members of the Senate later solidified support by sending a similar letter to the NFL on May 24, 2014.

The clarion call by Native American tribal leaders and organizations to end the shameful legacy of this despicable term can no longer be ignored. Members of the House and Senate have spoken. President Obama thinks the name should be changed. So does U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte held: “the Court will refrain from using the team name unless reference is made to a direct quote where the name appears.” Bob Costas, Christine Brennan and other notable journalists, athletes and political figures have joined the effort to rid the NFL of this denigrating word. The Washington Post will no longer use the offensive word in its editorials. The New York Daily News refuses to acknowledge the word in its publications. Even an entire network — CBS — has decided not to dictate the use of this term on the air, allowing its announcers to stop using the term during NFL broadcasts this season.

You can use caps. Change will prevail. Until it does, we call upon the NFL to stop perpetuating racism against Native Americans.

Faleomavaega has served in the House as a nonvoting delegate from American Samoa since 1989. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and the Natural Resources committees. Harjo is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, an award-winning columnist and the guest curator and editor of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Nation to Nation treaties exhibit and book. She and six other native people brought the landmark case against the name of the Washington team in 1992, won in 1999 and spent the next 10 years defending the USPTO’s decision in the federal courts.

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