By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006 4:10 PM
A group of Native Americans filed a new legal challenge yesterday to trademarks for the name and logo of the Washington Redskins, saying the team's name is a racial slur that should be changed.
A petition filed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by six Native Americans represents a second chance for Indians to challenge the football franchise's name. The team prevailed in an earlier fight when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs waited too long under trademark law to object. This time, the complaint was filed with a new set of plaintiffs.
In the petition, the six Native American activists say that the football franchise's name breaks a 1946 federal law prohibiting the government from registering a trademark that disparages any race, religion or other group.
"The term 'redskin' was and is a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person," the complaint says.
Jillian Pappan, 19, of Sioux City, Iowa, one of the six challengers, equated the name Redskin with the "N-word." "You're not going to call me a redskin, and they shouldn't be allowed to have that as a copyright," she said.
Washington Redskins spokesman Patrick Wixted said the team was aware of yesterday's filing.
Robert L. Raskopf, the lawyer representing the team in the case, said today, "We're confident that we will prevail on the merits."
"The highest court that considered it on the merits, the claim that the name disparages Native Americans, found no evidence of that. I don't think it's going to matter who brings the claim," Raskopf said. "The bottom line is there is no evidence to support that claim."
The emotional issue has a long and winding legal trail dating back 14 years. In a similar petition filed in 1992, activists argued that the team's name and feather-wearing Indian mascot trivialized Indian victims of genocide and those forced off their land by settlers and U.S. soldiers. In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed and ruled that the team had no right to trademark its name.
But Pro-Football Inc., the corporation that owns the Redskins, appealed the trademark panel's decision in U.S. District Court. Although acknowledging "difficult relations" between Anglo Americans and Native Americans, attorneys argued that the beloved hometown team has changed the connotation so the team's name is now "powerfully positive."
In 2003, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled in the team's favor and threw out the patent panel's decision to cancel six highly lucrative Redskins trademarks. She did not address whether the name was insulting but concluded that the activists waited too long to challenge the trademarks, which were first granted in 1967.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sent the case back to District Court without ruling on the substance of whether the name was derogatory. That case is still pending.
Philip Mause, a lawyer with the firm Drinker Biddle, which is representing the Native American activists, said the challengers in the new case are 19 to 24 years old. Among them are Shquanebin Lone-Bentley, 19, of Alexandria and Phillip Gover, 23, of Charlottesville.
Their youth should counter the legal question of whether they waited too long to sue, because they were not born when the first trademark was granted, Mause said. He said the new filing would force the courts to rule on the underlying issue of whether the Redskins name is disparaging enough for the team to lose its trademark protection.
"It will allow this to be resolved on its merits," Mause said.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American activist and one of the original 1992 challengers, said she was "proud that the native young people have stepped forward to take on this despicable, disparaging name."
She said she attended a Redskins game in 1974 with her husband but had to leave after fellow spectators pulled their hair and mocked them for being "real redskins."
"They were touching us," she said. "It was really such a bizarre thing that we had to leave."
Harjo said that more than 2,000 Native American references in team names and mascots have been changed since 1970. Stanford University in California changed its sports teams from the Indians to the Cardinal. St. John's University in New York switched from the Redmen to the Red Storm. In Ohio, Miami University's Redskins became the Redhawks.
But 900 teams continue to use Indian references, such as the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves, Harjo said.
The Washington Redskins were originally based in Boston and called the Braves. The owner changed the name to the Redskins in 1933, and the team moved to Washington in 1937.