When the U.S. Patent Office announced Wednesday that it had canceled six federal trademarks related to the Washington Redskins’ team name, native tribal leaders celebrated the ruling as an important step toward expunging an offensive term.
“Cancellation of the trademark is a landmark decision,” the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council of New York state said in a statement to International Business Times. “Strong minds are recognizing the team name is disparaging.”
Many Native Americans take umbrage with sports teams adopting Indian nomenclature and images to symbolize their team or to sell sports paraphernalia. While the topic remains controversial, several major U.S. clubs continue to use Native American imagery in their names and logos to evoke what they say are positive qualities like strength, courage and respect, including the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs.
In addition, countless college, amateur and high school teams across the country incorporate words like “Apaches,” “Indians” or even “savages” in their mascot names. Native American groups and their supporters maintain that because they view words like “redskin” as offensive, it is wrong to use them.
“We wouldn’t agree to any kind of personification of Native American people as a mascot for any sport,” Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and a member of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs in New York, told IBTimes. “You just can’t put people in the same category as animals.”
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Lyons, a long-time Native American activist who helped form the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations, said the U.S. Patent Office’s ruling was a long time coming.
“We have to be careful about making another human being a mascot of anything,” he said. “We’re no one’s mascot.”
The Redskins’ six trademark registrations were granted between 1967 and 1990. Public outcry over the Redskins’ name began in 1968.
Several college teams that formerly used the term “redskins” in their team names have since voluntarily changed their names. In 1972, the University of Utah Redskins became the Utah Utes (a native nation of the region). The Miami University Redskins became the RedHawks in 1997, and a year later the Southern Nazarene University Redskins became the Crimson Storm.
On Wednesday, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board sided with five Native American plaintiffs who had filed a lawsuit against the Redskins’ owner, Pro-Football Inc.
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the board said in its ruling.
A similar attempt to revoke the trademark in 2005 failed after an initial revocation was reversed.