Note: This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on Sept. 11, 1992.
A national coalition of Native American leaders yesterday took the first step in a process it hopes will cancel the federal government’s registration and protection of the trademarked term “Redskins” and ultimately persuade Jack Kent Cooke to change the name of his football team.
At news conferences held simultaneously in Washington, Minneapolis and Santa Fe, N.M., it was announced that an attorney representing a group of seven Native American petitioners yesterday filed a federal administrative law action with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) seeking to remove the federal government’s sanctioning of the name, first registered in 1967.
“What this case can accomplish for sure is to remove the federal government’s stamp of approval on racist material,” said Stephen R. Baird, a Minneapolis-based attorney for the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney, who is representing the petitioners on a pro bono basis. “If they continue to use the name, they’d have to do it without governmental standards.
“Federal trademark law and related case law clearly prohibit trademark registration of words that are offensive or disparaging,” Baird, who was in Washington yesterday to file the action, said in a statement released at all three sites.
“Because the word ‘redskin’ has historically and is still commonly used as a pejorative, derogatory term, the challenged registrations of the Washington Redskins should not have been granted and are subject to cancellation.”
Informed of the action yesterday, Cooke said: “I intend not to do anything about it [changing the name of the team]. I admire the Redskins name. I think it stands for bravery, courage and a stalwart spirit and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue to use it.” He declined further comment, and his attorney, Stuart Haney, said he was not aware of the protesting group or the action it took yesterday.
Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the petitioners and president of The Morning Star Foundation, a Washington-based American Indian advocacy group sponsoring and organizing the action, had another view.
“The time for polite talk is over,” she said. “This name of our wonderful Washington football team is comparable to the very worst names no longer used in polite society.”
Baird said that even if the PTO canceled the trademark, “It doesn’t prevent them [the Redskins] from using it. But it does remove the stamp of approval. It also removes the economic incentive to use the logo. Part of the justification for keeping the name is that it would cost too much to change it. We believe it [cancellation] would lower the commercial value, and we hope that would tip the scales in favor of a name change.”
Baird said he will argue that the use of the Redskins trademark should be prohibited by section 2A of the Lanham Act governing trademark law.
Jerome Gilson, a Chicago attorney and the author of a six-volume treatise on trademark law, said yesterday: “It would be a very tough case to prove” and that “what will be necessary is to come in with a consumer survey with evidence that shows a reasonable percentage of the public believes the name is a negative or disreputable use or connotes a negative impression. Before the PTO will take away a valuable registration mark, they’ll have to be convinced there is a valid basis.”
Baird said he’d been told it would take 13 months to get a hearing from the PTO’s nine-member Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, also released a statement in support of the action, saying “it is time to leave this era behind with the symbolic and substantive evolutionary act of changing offensive names and negative images in America.”