New generation of Natives takes up 'Redskins' fight

The campaign against the Washington "Redskins" is being carried on by a new generation of Native activists who are seeking to cancel the football team's trademarks.

On Friday, six young Native Americans filed a petition with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. They cited a federal law that prohibits registration of names that are "disparaging" to a particular group of people.

"Taken from a historical perspective, the only connotation that can be associated with the word 'redskin' is an offensive, demeaning one," said Phillip Gover, 23, a member of the Paiute Tribe of Utah who live in Virginia.

Gover and the fix other petitioners are following in the footsteps of a group of Native activists who first raised the trademark issue in 1992. After a lengthy delay, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed that the "Redskins" name was offensive to Native Americans.

The victory was short lived after the owners of the team took the case to a federal judge in Washington. In October 2003, the judge reversed the board's decision and said the seven original petitioners -- including the late author and scholar Vine Deloria Jr. -- waited too long to bring the case.

But last July, a federal appeals court revived the complaint. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said Mateo Romero, the youngest petitioner, should be given a chance to pursue his claim because he was only one year old at the time the first "Redskins" name was registered.

The decision gave an opening to other young Native Americans like Shquanebin Lone-Bentley, a 19-year-old member of the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Nation. "We support the petitioners in the original case and we are in turn supported by our people across the country, including all the major national American Indian organizations. We share a deep feeling of offense at the term," the Washington, D.C., area resident said.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne/Muscogee activist who filed the first case, congratulated the six new petitioners for carrying on the battle. "This public act of allegiance by Native American youth with the efforts of their elders to combat intolerance is truly heroic and reflects a courageous willingness on the part of these young people to protect Native peoples from slurs and vulgarities," she said.

Philip Mause, an attorney who is handling both cases, said Romero, an artist from Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, will continue to pursue his claim. A federal judge is trying to determine whether "laches" -- a legal doctrine applied in situations where a person has waited too long to assert a right or claim -- applies to him.

Although Harjo and Mause believe Romero's case will move forward, they both said the new petitioners should be able to avoid the laches issue. The appeals court noted that Congress failed to put in a statute of limitations in part of federal trademark law that allows "disparagement" claims.

"The young Native Americans who came forward to file these petitions –- ranging in age from 18 to 24 –- will not likely be subject to a successful laches defense," said Mause, a partner at the Drinker Biddle who is handling the case on a pro bono basis. "Therefore their cases should be resolved solely on the merits – the issue of disparagement."

In addition to Gover and Lone-Bentley, the new petitioners include: Jillian Pappan, 19, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska; Amanda Blackhorse, 24, a member of the Navajo Nation; Courtney Tsotigh, 18, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; and Marcus Briggs, 22, a Miccosukee/Muscogee from Florida.

Appeals Court Decision:
Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo (July 15, 2005)

Lower Court Decision:
Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo (September 30, 2003)

Patent and Trademark Office Ruling:
Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (1999)

William "Lone Star" Dietz Research:
Linda Waggoner: Reclaiming James One Star (Indian Country Today 2004)