The Idea of Indians

By: Eric Abeita | Intern
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner | ted.griswold@procopio.com

During the NBA Finals, a television ad was aired that opposed using Native Americans as mascots, specifically targeted to the Washington Football Team.[1] The ad stated that Native Americans refer to themselves in many ways, “Indomitable, strong, Inuit, Blackfoot,” but they don’t refer to themselves as the R- word. It was particularly powerful in that it did not specifically state that R- word, but ended with a simple shot of a Washington helmet on a football field to convey the message. The ad was developed by the National Congress of American Indians, and paid for by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribe in California. It was targeted to be aired during the Superbowl, but extraordinary airtime costs kept it from being seen on television’s biggest forum.

This week, the U.S. Patent Office agreed with the ad’s sentiment, when it ruled that the R-word nickname is “disparaging to Native Americans” and that the six registered trademarks that involve the R-word must be canceled. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that “substantial composite of Native Americans found the term REDSKINS to be disparaging in connection with respondent’s services during the relevant time frame…” Blackhorse, et al v. Pro-Football, Inc., Cancellation No. 92046185, Board Decision, pg. 72 (June 18, 2014).

Momentum for the campaign to get Washington to change its nickname is building. Like so many social movements that succeed because of public pressure, this one may ultimately be victorious because the American people will finally say enough, or because the Washington Football team will get hit in its pocketbook when it can’t protect its team name from use by others. This issue may ultimately be resolved by financial cost, but money has nothing to do with why teams should stop using Native Americans as mascots.

It remains perplexing and sad that Native Americans are still being used as mascots all over the country, and that the R-word is still being used for that team in the Nation’s capitol. Advocates for using Native Americans as mascots state that Native American names and tribes are used in “respectful ways”, and it is done to “honor” the tribes by making them “positive mascots”. This contention misses the point.   The point is that Native Americans are people, living and working in modern America. They are not a thought or an idea of what a Native American is, they are Native Americans. When a team uses a Native American tribe as a mascot, it is not allowing the American people to see Native Americans as everyday people in their communities. It is a dehumanizing effect that can be corrected.

The legal proceedings in Blackhorse will continue, as there is little doubt that the football team will appeal. However, public awareness can change. People can choose not to support the disparagement of Native American people as mascots by their individual actions. “Proud, forgotten, Indian. . . . rancher, teacher, doctor, soldier.” These are the appropriate images of Native America. Maybe over time this idea will sink in, and replace those archaic ones that are caricatures of a Native American.

Eric Abeita is a member of the Isleta Pueblo and is entering his third year at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Eric is a recipient of the 2014 Procopio Native American Internship.

Procopio trademark attorney Megan E. McCarthy is preparing a more thorough analysis of the 177 page Blackhorse case which will be posted here in the near future. Please check back for Megan’s analysis.
[1] See the NCAI ad at http://www.youtube.com/user/NCAI1944.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at ted.griswold@procopio.com and 619.515.3277.