If team names offend, must they change?

Suzan Shown Harjo, part Cheyenne and part Muskogee, is 100 percent opposed to the use of Redskins as the team name used by Washington of the National Football League: "It's the most degrading word that's used to refer to us in the English language. It's offensive because it's meant to be. It's mean and nasty."

Indeed, an ethnic-studies professor at the University of Colorado, Deward Walker, says calling the team the Washington Redskins is no different than using other derogatory racial terms that would be clearly unacceptable. Or, Ms. Harjo suggests for example, calling the team the "Washington White Trash."

It's an odious word with lineage to bounty-hunting days, Harjo says, and is simply "wrongheaded."

For these reasons, and more, Harjo is leading the battle to get the Redskins to stop using the descriptive. It's still early in the fourth quarter, but she seems to be winning.

This celebrated case is generating vigorous discussion nationwide involving other sports teams calling themselves names based on native-American culture.

Examples: In mid-February, Indian Bend Elementary School in Phoenix changed its name from the Tomahawks to Thunderbird. In Scarborough, Maine, the school board is consulting with students concerning the high school's Redskins name; the board is expected to consider the situation this month.

And in Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois trustees who voted a decade ago to keep Chief Illiniwek as a symbol are under vigorous attack and now say they will discuss it anew. In a recent meeting at the university, the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Language of the Americas adopted a resolution calling for the chief to be replaced by a symbol "that does not promote inaccurate, anachronistic, and damaging stereotypes of native American people."

Last year, after spending much of the '90s in court, a three-judge Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with Harjo and six others and canceled the trademark protection Washington had for its Redskins name. The panel said the word "may disparage native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute."

An attorney for the Redskins, Robert Raskopf of White & Case in New York City, says the suit is based on two key points - that use of the term is scandalous and disparaging. Mr. Raskopf says Harjo and her group lost on the scandalous claim, so he is now asking for a review and a new trial on the disparagement charge.

The ruling, if upheld (it's currently being reviewed by a US District Court in Washington, D.C.; when this decision will come is not known), will mean the Washington football team no longer will have exclusive right to use the familiar Redskin logo that appears on helmets and in a variety of other marketing activities. Without trademark protection, which ensures exclusivity, the financial advantages largely disappear, as they do for any product.

"It was truly a landmark decision," says Stephen Baird, an attorney in Minneapolis for Fish & Richardson, who handled the case pro bono for seven years for the native Americans. Never before, he says, has trademark protection been canceled because it "comprised racial slurs."

The ruling, if it stands, does not force Washington to drop its Redskins name. That would require further court action. But Baird says, "If I had to look into a crystal ball, I believe that eventually the team will change its name. There's no place for these logos in a compassionate society."

Indeed, it may be that social pressure will force the Redskins and others - including two other prominent professional teams, the Cleveland Indians (with the Chief Wahoo logo) and the Atlanta Braves (with the tomahawk chop) - to bow down.

Several college teams have changed. The former Stanford Indians are the Cardinal; the former Dartmouth Indians are the Big Green. The University of Oklahoma, Harjo says, dropped its mascot, Little Red, in 1970. Harjo says that among athletic teams with Indians or variations in their names, about one-third have switched to something else.

Among the more stubborn holdouts: The Florida State Seminoles and their spear-wielding Chief Osceola.

A spokesman for Harjo's group says there are about 100 colleges and junior colleges that have Indian nicknames and mascots, and 1,500 high schools.

Harjo is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., which promotes native-American traditions and culture. For her and others involved in the lawsuit, it's all about racism. Other "derogatory names" wouldn't be tolerated, Harjo says, and she rattles off a half-dozen of the most offensive. She equates use of the word Redskins with "trying to defend the 'n' word."

In a commentary in Native Peoples magazine last summer, Harjo wrote, "Cherokee is not a Jeep. Crazy Horse is not malt liquor. That's cultural thievery, disrespectful to living peoples and our heroes."

In fairness, when the Redskins got their first trademark protection in 1967, sensibilities were different and political correctness had not yet been invented. Attorney Baird confesses that until a decade ago, the issue "wasn't even on my radar screen as a slur." Then he discovered that "what I had been tolerating for so many years along with everyone else was intolerable."

Other defenses of the term conceivably make sense, but not to Harjo.

For example, the case can be argued that the name has been popular with sports teams because it honors a brave people. Baird disagrees: "Certainly the word isn't being used to honor someone if it is in fact saddled with negative connotations." And no native American, Harjo says, ever uses the "r" word.

"It's better," Harjo says, "to be forgotten about than stereotyped."

Redskins attorney Raskopf disagrees, contending the word connotes "a lot of things, mostly honor, hard work, image, and success." Besides, he says, it's up to the Redskins "what they choose to call themselves. The government has no business interfering in the process. The Redskins have speech rights that they are asserting."

The Washington football team issued a statement: "The Redskins believe its name honors native Americans and has for the past 67 years."

There are an estimated 2 million native Americans, Harjo says. Use of any name that relates to them is acceptable only if, she says, these native Americans decide themselves to call one of their teams Apaches, Warriors, or the like. Harjo says that for an outsider to appropriate the designation is wrong.

Outsiders making the rules for native Americans has long been a contentious point. Professor Walker says many supposed native terms were decreed by whites, including words like Navajo and Sioux. He says it is once again mainly whites who have created the alleged politically correct designation of native Americans. In fact, Walker says, many native Americans "prefer the word Indian because it's less ambiguous."

But perhaps most important to Harjo is that native peoples - the term she prefers - find "Redskins" offensive. It should be enough, she says, if someone says, "I don't like that. Don't call me that." For it to continue, Harjo suggests, is simply "societal abuse and name-calling."

Harjo makes the point that "the best anyone can say is it's a neutral term, like the word 'colored' in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]." What opponents do, Baird says, is take "a number of positions that seem to shift in the sand." On the one hand, Baird says, people argue it's a "completely neutral synonym, but then they use the term to honor native Americans. They can't have it both ways."

Back in Washington, Harjo says that historically "we have been assaulted with a barrage of negative imagery." So what her group is engaged in, she says, is "cultural reclamation."

Besides, she says, there is no reason the nation can't "survive and flourish without its racist toys."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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