By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
In a landmark decision, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) cancelled the “Redskins” trademark on Wednesday, June 18. The 2-1 decision came down from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) and called the Washington, DC – based NFL team’s name “disparaging of Native Americans”. A total of six trademarks, each bearing the word ‘Redskin’, were cancelled.
The USPTO released a statement on Wednesday in which they said, “The decision to cancel the registration means that, if not appealed or not affirmed following a possible review by a federal court, the trademark owner (Pro Football, Inc.) will lose the legal benefits conferred by federal registration.”
The USPTO did state that the team has only lost its trademark status, not the ability to use the name. “The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board does not have jurisdiction in a cancellation proceeding to require that a party cease use of a mark, but only to determine whether a mark may continue to be registered.”
Bob Raskopt, Washington Redskins trademark attorney, released the following statement on the decision, “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. We are confident we will prevail once again and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”
The USPTO cancelled the six trademarks in 1999, but U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly threw out the decision stating the Office had used dated and partial evidence submitted by the plaintiffs.
“We are confident that when a district court reviews today’s split decision, it will reach a similar conclusion,” Raskopt said on Wednesday.
The current case of Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc. involved five American Indian plaintiffs including: Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Phillip Gover, Jillian Pappan, and Courtney Tsotigh. The plaintiffs were represented in the case by attorney Jesse Witten of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
“We are extraordinarily gratified to have prevailed in this case,” said Alfred W. Putnam Jr., chairman of Drinker Biddle & Reath. “The dedication and professionalism of our attorneys and the determination of our clients have resulted in a milestone victory that will serve as an historic precedent.”
Witten added, “The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team’s name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place. We presented a wide variety of evidence – including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups – to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin’ is an ethnic slur.”
President Barack Obama didn’t comment on the issue on Wednesday, but he has stated his opinion on the matter in recent months. In an interview with the Associated Press in October 2013, he said, “If I were the owner of the team, and I knew that there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, commented, “This decision is a step forward for Indian Country and for all Americans who champion tolerance. No team or organization should profit from a dictionary-defined racial slur.”
Reactions throughout Indian Country were pretty much the same.
The Oneida Indian Nation of New York started the Change the Mascot campaign a few years ago. On Wednesday, Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter and NCAI executive director Jackie Pata issued a joint statement, “If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans.”
They went on to thank those who have worked on this issue for many years. “We would like to sincerely thank Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse for their tireless efforts that helped lead to today’s historic milestone.”
Courtney Gordon, social medial moderator at powwows.com, wrote on the Cherokee One Feather Facebook page, “There is simply no way around it: the word is a racial slur. Those who believe it should stay make me question just how far this nation has come in accepting Native people as full human beings and citizens.”
USET president Brian Patterson said in a comment on Thursday, June 19, “For many fans of the Washington, D.C. NFL team, the nickname has been one that they say reflects honor and reverence for our people. But, for Native Americans, it is an unacceptable racial epithet that reminds us of our painful place in the history pages of this country.”
He added, “Despite the confidence expressed by the team in their ability to once again reverse this decision, we feel that the Change the Mascot campaign has been successful in educating the public and garnering strong, overall public sentiment and support in our united stance to oppose the use of this term.”