Aug. 17, 2006 – Phil Gover, a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, sees caricatures and misrepresentations of American Indians all around him: â€œCrazy Horseâ€� malt liquor , â€œAmerican Spiritâ€� cigarettes and â€œPemmicanâ€� beef jerky, for example.
Native people have rarely had control over the depiction of their history, culture and lives. To Gover, a 23-year-old football fan, one of the most offensive portrayals is the Washington Redskins, the US capitalâ€™s NFL team.
â€œIt makes me angry that images like this make people ignorant,â€� said Gover, who currently lives near Washington, DC. â€œThat the only exposure several million people in the Washington, DC area ever are going to have to Indians is the name Redskins and the picture of that Indian on the side of their helmetâ€¦.â€�
Gover recently joined the 16-year-long legal battle to compel the DC team to change its name; many native people consider the term â€œredskinâ€� the most offensive slur an Indian can be called. Gover and five other young American Indians filed a petition last week with the US Patent and Trademark Office to push for the cancellation of the Washington football clubâ€™s trademarked term â€œRedskins.â€�
If petitioners win, the name will no longer be protected by law, however the team could still choose to keep it.
Nineteen-year-old petitioner Shquanebin Lone-Bentley told The NewStandard she was compelled to join the fight after she recently moved to DC from the Seneca Nation reservation in Upstate New York.
â€œWhen I came down here I was confronted with a lot of mascot issues dealing with the Redskins,â€� said Lone-Bentley. â€œAs long as people see the mascots and depictions of native people being depicted as mascots, they do not see native people as a real people â€“
thereâ€™s not value of the culture.â€�
â€œAs long as people see the mascots and depictions of native people being depicted as mascots, they do not see native people as a real people â€“ thereâ€™s not value of the culture.â€
The legal battle against the well-funded Pro-Football Inc., the owners of the DC team, began in 1992 when another group filed a similar petition. Suzan Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, an Indian rights organization, was the original lead petitioner. She said the teamâ€™s ardent opposition to changing the name is nothing short of racism.
â€œIn the history of America,â€� Harjo told TNS, â€œwhenever newspapers have wanted to say the worst thing they could about native people, theyâ€™ve always used that term. Whenever movies used to use pejoratives about native people they used that term. Dime novelsâ€¦ pick a popular culture manifestation â€“ thatâ€™s the worst term thatâ€™s always used and it was out of that era and that mindset that this football club got the name of this team.â€�
The teamâ€™s original name, before it moved to DC in the 1930s, was the Boston Braves. Court documents state that then-owner George Preston Marshall changed the name to â€œRedskinsâ€� in 1933 to â€œhonorâ€� the teamâ€™s head coach, William â€œLone Starâ€� Dietz, who was reportedly part Sioux .
Suzan Harjo said the teamâ€™s ardent opposition to changing the name is nothing short of racism.
Philip Mause, the petitionersâ€™ attorney, said the case has been complicated by both technical issues and appeals from the team owners. The federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the US Patent Office, ruled the use of â€œRedskinsâ€� was disparaging in 1999.
However, in 2003, Pro-Football Inc. won an appeal after a US District Court ruled the evidence considered by the trademark office was â€œinsufficient,â€� and that the petitioners were also barred from challenging the trademark because they had waited too long to request legal action.
Lawyers for the new petitioners argue that they will not be subject to the same time argument because they are young and did not have an opportunity to file a petition until more recently. According to Mause, their evidence includes dictionary definitions, testimony from linguists, newspaper clippings and opposition from numerous Indian groups at the time.
â€œI think the symbolic value of the legal system reaching a conclusion on this â€“ that this is disparaging â€“ could have some effect,â€� said Mause. â€œItâ€™s possible that they could keep using the name [even after a trademark cancellation], but at least the federal government wonâ€™t be sanctioning it at that point.â€�
The NewStandard's requests to speak to Robert Raskopf, a lawyer representing the team, were not returned before press time, but the attorney recently told the Washington Post the disparagement claim is invalid. "I don't think it's going to matter who brings the claim," he said. "The bottom line is there is no evidence to support that claim."
Thousands of teams across the country, from high schools to colleges to professional leagues, have used names like the Chiefs, Warriors, Indians and Savages. But after groups started protesting the practice in the 1970s, hundreds of schools began dropping such names and mascots.
After groups started protesting the practice in the 1970s, hundreds of schools began dropping such names and mascots.
In 2003, the Michigan State Board of Education passed a resolution recommending the elimination of all American Indian references by all state schools . Last February, the National Collegiate Athletic Association implemented a policy prohibiting colleges or universities with hostile or abusive names, mascots or imagery from hosting any NCAA championship games.
But like the NFL team, colleges are also repelling activistsâ€™ pleas to eliminate Indian-inspired nicknames and mascots, including Florida State University, which fought to keep the â€œSeminolesâ€� name and the â€œChief Osceolaâ€� mascot ; and the University of North Dakota, which appealed to keep its â€œFighting Siouxâ€� name and logo . Many teams use the argument that they are honoring Indian people by using such terms as monikers.
But Gover said there are better, more authentic ways to honor Indians and to express reverence for indigenous culture, customs and history.
â€œTo me, itâ€™s not just enough that a team be respectful of Indians in the images they use to depict them and their chants and their team logos,â€� said Grover, â€œbut that theyâ€™re also a positive force in Indian Country and that they have a presence in Indian Country. That theyâ€™re giving back, that theyâ€™re not using the name purely for their own gain, because itâ€™s not theirs to have.â€�