Suzan Harjo: It’s a victory for all of us


Several groups came together to protest the name of the Washington Redskins in the shadow of FedEx Field on Nov. 25, 2013. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The way Suzan Harjo found out that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had cancelled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration – an issue she had first brought before the agency 22 years earlier – was through a small voice on her answering machine.

“Congratulations!” her 6-year-old grandson said.

“It almost made me cry because they’re the ones I’m doing this for,” she said.

When the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board declared the football team’s name and logo were disparaging to Native Americans on Wednesday, Harjo’s name was not among the plaintiffs. But few would argue that the victory was any less hers. In 1992, she and six other Native Americans filed a similar suit, called Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., laying much of the groundwork that was presented in the current case.

“It’s a victory for all of us,” said Harjo who has remained vocal on the issue through the years. “We won. We all did this in small and large ways. It’s a tremendous victory.”

Team owner Daniel Snyder has vowed never to change the team’s name and the agency’s decision will not force him to do so. It will also not stop the team from trying to defend itself against anyone who tries to profit from the logo. But it does diminishes the team’s legal protections and hinders its ability to block counterfeit merchandise from entering the country.

It also comes at a time when the team has faced unprecedented pressure to change its name from, among others, politicians, former players, religious leaders and civil rights groups. Last month, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL calling for a name change. And last week the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ passed a resolution that calls on its members to boycott the football team.

Harjo said she remembers clearly the day she and her fellow plaintiff’s prevailed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. It was April 1999, a decade before the case would ultimately be dismissed on appeal in the federal courts.

The first person she called was her father, an avid sports fan.

“He said, ‘We won?’” she said. “It was the other sweetest sound next to my grandson’s voice.”

Afterward, she said she and her fellow plaintiffs wrote a letter to the man who was in the process of buying the team from Jack Kent Cooke, figuring he’d be sympathetic to their cause because he was young and Jewish. But Daniel Snyder, she said, never wrote them back.

 

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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