House Introduces Bill to Ban Racist 'Redskins' Trademark

Gale Courey Toensing


A new law banning the trademarking of the term “redskins” and other racist language against Native Americans may accomplish what a number of court cases have so far failed to do.

The bill, called the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013, if passed, would strip the Washington football team of its trademarked name and put a stop to its exclusive profiteering from using the racist slur in its logo on sweatshirts, tee shirts, caps, coffee mugs and dozens of other products flooding the market. The bill would also prohibit any future trademarks that use the offensive term.

The bill was introduced in the House on Wednesday, March 21, by Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and co-sponsored by Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), John Lewis (D-Georgia), Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), Donna Christenson (D-Virgin Islands), Michael Honda (D-Calif.). and co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.),

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), the president of The Morning Star Institute, celebrated the introduction of the bill. "It's wonderful to have such distinguished and courageous members of Congress stand up for us to oppose this indefensible racial epithet. I hope this helps to open the eyes of those who have not seen or who have refused to see the harm this does to our young people."

The historical context for the name “redskins” is Phips Proclamation – a 18th century racist and genocidal policy put into place by the Massachusetts colonial government (Maine was still part of the Massachusetts colony at the time). In 1755, Spencer Phips, the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Massachusetts issued a call for the genocide of the Penobscot Nation whose people had resisted the colonization of their ancestral lands. The proclamation named the Penobscots “to be Enemies, Rebels, and Traitors to his Majesty King George the Second,” and required Massachusetts residents to “Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” It set out a schedule of payments “for every Indian Enemy that they shall kill and produce the Scalp.”  Scalps of male Penobscots above the age of twelve years received 50 pounds; female brought in 25 pounds; and children under 12 brought in 20 pounds. The bloody scalps were called “redskins.”

The Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013 would amend the Trademark Act of 1946, also known as the Lanham Act after Rep. Frederick G. Lanham, a Texas Democrat, and cancel the federal registrations of trademarks that use the term “redskin” in reference to Native Americans and prevent future registrations. There are currently six trademark registrations and five pending applications for trademark registrations before the Trademark Office that would be affected by the bill, according to a briefing paper Faleomavaega’s office has distributed to legislators, seeking their support for the bill. The Non-Disparagement Act has the backing of the National Congress of American Indians, International Indian Treaty Council, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, and Harjo’s Morning Star Institute.

The Lanham Act currently provides that trademarks that “may disparage” persons may not be registered and are subject to cancellation. Using that provision, Harjo was the lead plaintiff with six other American Indians who in 1992 filed the first of several lawsuits against the Washington team’s racist name. They petitioned the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board – part of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to cancel six “redskins” trademarks. In 1999 – after seven years of administrative litigation – the TTAB ruled that the Trademark Office erred when it registered the trademarks because “redskin” is a term that may disparage American Indians. The TTAB directed that the registrations be canceled. The owners of the trademarks appealed to federal court and in 2009 – 10 years later – the Washington, D.C., appeals court ruled in the owners’ favor not on the merits of the case, but on the finding that Harjo and the other petitioners had waited too long after their 18th birthdays to petition the Trademark Office under the Lanham Act. In 2006, five younger American Indians filed a new petition with the TTAB to cancel the registrations. Their petition, called Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., is continuing.

Although the new bill would prohibit registering “redskins” as a trademark it would not stop business owners who are determined to use the racist term. They would be free under the First Amendment right of free speech to use the term “redskins” – unregistered – even though it is disparaging. That means the Washington football team could continue to use the racist slur, but it would no longer have the market cornered with an exclusive right to sell items using the name.

Faleomavaega and the bill’s other sponsors make a moral argument for supporting the bill in the briefing paper for legislators. The new bill “will not improve the economy, public health, the environment or national defense,” the briefing paper acknowledges. “But, it is one of the more profound steps that Congress can take. … This bill would address a continuing wrong, an error that the Trademark Office itself has admitted. It would be a small, but symbolically important action for the federal government to correct its past legally erroneous decision to register ‘redskins’ trademarks.”

The briefing paper also appeals for a sensitivity that society has acquired toward other minorities. “’[R]edskin’ is the most vile term to use to refer to a Native person. It is never used in a neutral way. The Trademark Office would surely not register a trademark that uses the ‘n-word’ in reference to African-Americans. And in 2008, the Trademark Office refused to register a trademark containing the term ‘heeb’ because that term may disparage Jews. If the “n-word” and “heeb” are not eligible for registration, American Indians cannot understand why the federal government endorses use of the most offensive term that can be used to refer to them,” the paper says.

And for those who continue to believe that the term “redskins” is not offensive, the briefing paper lists nearly a dozen dictionaries that define the term as disparaging and offensive, lists more than a dozen schools and universities that have dropped the name in recent years, and reminds legislators that in 2005 the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college athletics, condemned the use of these disparaging references and banned the use of Native Indian names, logos and mascots by colleges and universities during its championship tournaments.

But Washington officials may still need some convincing. The Washington Post noted that the issue is still under debate. “There is no guarantee that the bill will even get a committee hearing in the House, or reach a vote. But it comes at a sensitive time,” The Post reported. “Earlier this month in Alexandria, a three-judge panel on the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board heard arguments over whether the term ‘redskins’ should be considered a slur and therefore not worthy of trademark protection.”

The TTAB’s indecisiveness on the issue is reason for Congress to act, the briefing paper says. “The burdens on the individual petitioners to get the TTAB to act, and then to defend the agency’s decision in federal court are too significant,” the paper says. Leaving this matter to the Blackhorse petitioners, which has already languished in court for six years, “is no solution, but an abdication of Congress’s responsibility to govern.”

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John Redcorn's picture
John Redcorn
Submitted by John Redcorn on
Fuck the whitey racists. First they massacred us, then they took our land and left us nothing but shitty reservations, and now they humiliate us by using a racial slur as their mascot. The white man needs to go back to where they came from, they need to just move back to Europe and leave out homeland alone!

Patrick Collins's picture
Patrick Collins
Submitted by Patrick Collins on
I understand I don't mind americans or my own people calling me "Paddy", but I hate it coming out of the mouth of a Brit. My uncles emigrated to England in the 1950's. It was common in those days to see notices on lodging houses "No Irish, Blacks or dogs". I see a pizza being advertised here in Ireland called "Apache Pizzario" with the features of a war bonneted indian. It is bloody annoying. Apart from being mildly racist, worse it propogates ignorance. The Apaches did not wear the traditional headress of the northern plains people, Lakota, Cheyenne and Araphoe.

Bill's picture
Submitted by Bill on
This is long overdue. From the Phips Proclamation to General Sherman's statement, "The only good Indian I've seen is a dead one." and his goal of wiping out the American Indian, to placement on reservations, to modern mistreatment and disrespect certain people in this country have exhibited a callousness and hatred for an honorable group of humans who simply wanted to protect their brethren, their lands, and their livelihood. Indeed, if there is no place for the use of the "n" word and other disparaging terms there is also no place for the use of the term "redskin." GET TO YOUR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS NOW AND ENCOURAGE THEM TO PASS THIS BILL!

Jodi Marsh's picture
Jodi Marsh
Submitted by Jodi Marsh on
I graduated High School in 1997 our Logo "East Islip High School" was Redmen. I must say I heard that the logo may change years ago.I am very supportive of all tribes everywhere.I understand the reasoning for the pulling for changing it.However it's really the only thing I don't agree upon, at the HS level.Knowing and literally feeling the E.I. Pride that radiates from of the athletes and the supporters at the sporting events it is as if the sense of the past being invoked through each player in a very positive manner which give them pride,courage & strength.I would not like to see it change.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I remember growing up there was a resturant named Samboes and had a black mammy as a logo. The black community got up in arms so within a year all the chains and this store changed the name and got rid of the logo. Yet I could never understand why redskin was still okay. I am half Cherokee and half Italian as a kid I got call all the names anyone could get called be both. White people are the cruelest most ignorant people. A cancer that has ruled for their own good and no one elses

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Lets settle this nonsense, the true name is the Washington Whiteskins a much more realistic one for a place that only recently accepted a black man as president. Put an image of John Boehner on the helmet and call it a nite , Bet one thing all the Brothers would want to be traded ASAP !

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
The continuing stereotype of the Indigenous is a deliberate attempt at colonial humor, to distract from viewers and readers the collusion and conflict of interest between the political prostitutes and embedded and burrowed career operatives and officials with the individuals and corporations profitting off resources and lands, that the malicious intent is to keep the Indigenous people in chains and segregated to reservational concentration camps. The Department of Interior has the distinct reputation for the corruption between its employees and the corporations mining resources on Indigenous lands, and the destruction of records and paperwork pertaining to them. For us its theft, for them the results include the murder of 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

Jeff Red-Dog Griffin's picture
Jeff Red-Dog Griffin
Submitted by Jeff Red-Dog Griffin on
I’ve been a Redskin fan and a fan of Indian ideology all my life. Nobody here ever thinks of the team name as being racist damn-it. The name was not chosen because owners wanted to slander the American Indian you dumb-asses. It was because they had so much fight in them and the American Pride they represent. In modern times the Indian is referred to as the only true Americans. 3 years ago my wife and I were driving through an Indian territory in Arizona. My wife made me pull over at an Indian stand selling all sorts of handmade items including a type of bread she knew about and wanted to buy. I forget how it came about but for some reason the subject of football came up, she asked this Indian guy who he rooted for. I flipped out when he said "Who Else" The Washington Redskins. At that point I thought all this bull about Indians actually being pissed was made up by some political liberal group trying to start more trouble as always.