Native Sun News: Washington team's mascot hits another bump

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Racially driven fan reactions have accompanied the use of the mascot for decades.

Washington’s mascot hits bump
Another step in ongoing fight against racism in sports
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

WASHINGTON –– The United States Patent Office has sided with 5 Native American plaintiffs in a ruling last week that deemed the Washington Redskin trademark to be “disparaging” to Native Americans.

“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote. Federal trademark laws ban offensive or disparaging language.

The ruling that came as a result of a petition filed by five Native Americans in Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., has no enforcement powers over the highly profitable and popular NFL team, but it could potentially hit billionaire owner, Dan Snyder, in the pocketbook if upheld by higher courts. If the trademark were to be removed the Redskins would not have control or protection from others looking to profit off of merchandise with the current team logo and nickname.

Lawyers for the team were dismissive of the ruling as they expect it to be overturned on appeal.

“We’ve seen this story before. 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,” said Bob Raskopf, trademark attorney for the Washington Redskins in a statement. “This case is no different than an earlier case, where the Board cancelled the Redskins’ trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the Board.”

The first suit that was filed against the team by Suzan Harjo was decided in 1999 in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the ruling was overturned on appeal and Harjo again has played a key role in organizing the current suit that is a continuation of a longer 30 year effort by both Native and non-native activists to change the name.

In 1991 the controversy--that some supporters of the mascot claim to be a new phenomenon-- burst on to the national media stream when Tim Giago, publisher of Native Sun News and founder of Indian Country Today, was joined by Harjo and Michael Haney on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about ending the use of “offensive” and “racist” imagery by professional sports teams. At the time activists like Charlene Teters had taken on the role of educators to the mainstream public about what she and others saw as harmful and racist imagery.

The controversy seemingly lost momentum in mainstream media, (except in the Indian media) became prominent again last September when Peter King of the publicly announced that he would discontinue the use of the name on the MMQB site and in his writing. The revelation fell in line with the practices of other publications and writers like Mike Wise, of the Washington Post, who have been the non-Native voices advocating that the team change the name despite harsh criticism from some fans in the city.

The pressure created by social media activists, journalists, celebrities, members of congress, and tribal leaders alike forced team owner Dan Snyder to hire a crisis team last year to address the public relations nightmare that has continued to gain momentum. The returns on that investment have been poor as many in Indian Country and beyond have been reinvigorated by his refusal to even consider a name change.

“There is absolutely no point anymore to hanging on to this nickname. It survives only because Dan Snyder has enough f**k-you money to say it to practically everybody this side of Warren Buffett. A slur remains a slur, no matter how much you loved your grandfather, who took you to see ol’ Sonny Jurgensen slinging the ball around. It is 2014 and we don’t call people “Redskins” anymore,” said Charles P. Pierce, staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America.

Snyder would respond to critics of the name with an open letter to fans and by creating the Original Americans Foundation meant to provide aid to Indian communities. The problem however was that the open letter to fans was filled with historical inaccuracies, and the establishment of the foundation met immediate criticism from tribes who interpreted the move as an effort by Snyder to buy the consent of Indian people.

One source who was contacted by the Redskins in D.C. informed Native Sun News prior to the announcement that the organization had been seeking out prominent Native Americans in the city to head up the OAF for months. Eventually, a man of Cherokee descent filled the role.

In the open letter to fans from Snyder he defended the use of the name and said that, “four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.” He would also state that George Allen, former coach of the team, visited with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund a booster for Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where he received consultation on the design on the helmet.

Snyder did not say if he had met with Oglala Lakota tribal members or if the representatives of the Red Cloud Athletic Fund were Native. The school would respond by saying they opposed the use of Native American themed mascots shortly after Snyder’s letter was released.

The statement from Snyder that included claims that the team’s original coach was Native American and that the team was actually named after him is not a new notion and is partly true. When George Preston Marshall originally bought the Boston Braves, he would change the name to Redskins in honor of William Henry Dietz, the team’s first coach. Many supporters of the mascot have argued that the mascot was named in honor of Lonestar Dietz or William Henry Deitz (as his birth certificate shows) and thus the Redskins Mascot should be allowed to exist. There seems to be no argument that the team was named on behalf of the coach, however it seems that historical evidence meant to prove that Dietz was in fact a Native American is at best sketchy and more likely inaccurate.

Research by Native Sun News in to the current enrollment list of the Oglala Sioux Tribe showed that Lonestar Dietz or William Henry Dietz is not listed as ever being a tribal member. The Washington Post would also dispel this notion in a piece written by Richard Laeby. His research showed that Dietz was born in Rice Lake, Wis., to white parents.

Dietz would also later claim that he was Native American in an attempt to avoid being drafted in to the military during World War I, before Indians became U.S. citizens. That claim would eventually lead to him being prosecuted for falsifying his status.

At the trial one of his sisters would testify that, “He was born here and has no Indian blood in him.”

The Redskins legacy in regards to issues of a race is not glamorous. The team’s original owner George Preston Marshall who was labeled by one of his contemporaries as “the leading racist in the NFL” fought the integration of the NFL adamantly.

He was quoted as saying “I will start hiring Negro players when the Harlem Globetrotters start hiring whites.” While the battle for integrating the team was going on a few fanatical fans were photographed outside of the Redskin headquarters with a sign that read, “Keep the Redskins White.”

Giago called that “one of the greatest ironies of the time.”

He would eventually be forced to draft a black player in 1962 when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy demanded that Marshall sign a black player or the government would revoke the Redskins' lease on the newly built stadium that would eventually become RFK stadium. The team would heed the warning and draft star running back Ernie Davis from Syracuse University; however, Davis would refuse to sign with the team, and would eventually be traded for Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell would be the first black player to see action on the field as a member of the Washington football team.

Shortly after last weeks ruling, lead plaintiff Blackhorse, would say "I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed."

The five petitioners who hail from four separate tribal nations are Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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