CANASTOTA, N.Y. – Six American Indian young people from across the country filed a joint petition with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Aug. 11 for the cancellation of the Washington Redskins football organization’s trademarked term, “Redskins.”
In 1992, a group of prominent American Indian leaders filed a similar petition that is still pending 14 years later. Both petitions call for the cancellation of the federal government’s registration of the Washington “Redskins” trademark, owned by defendant Pro-Football Inc., because its use is disparaging to American Indians. The petitions cite extensive evidence concerning the history of the use of the term “redskin” and public perception of the objectionable term. Both sets of petitioners are represented pro bono by the law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the use of this trademarked term is disparaging to a large number of Native Americans,” said Philip Mause, partner at DBR and pro bono counsel for both the original and new petitioners.
The original petition was brought in 1992 by American Indian leaders and led by Suzan Shown Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, a nonprofit American Indian advocacy group. In 1999, Harjo’s petition earned a victory and the TTAB canceled the “Redskins” registrations on the grounds that the term was disparaging.
Pro-Football Inc. appealed to the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, which in 2003 reversed the TTAB’s decision on disparagement. The court also determined that the petitioners were barred by laches, a legal doctrine applied when a court decides that a party has taken too long to assert a right or claim and that the passage of time is deemed prejudicial to an adverse party.
“The way laches works is that it looks at the delay from when the petitioners are roughly 18 years old,” Mause said. Because of the age of many of the original petitioners, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia determined that too much time had passed before they filed suit.
In 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling on the grounds that the youngest petitioner, Mateo Romero, only reached the age of majority in 1984 and, therefore, may not be chargeable with prejudicial delay (laches). The appeals court sent the case back to the district court, ordering it to determine whether Romero’s case is barred by laches. The case is pending. Mause said the firm will continue to fight Romero’s claim.
The six new American Indian petitioners are between the ages of 18 to 24, so laches should not be applicable in their petition. Mause said the new petition will force the courts to look at the real issue.
“Sooner or later, the disparagement issue has to be faced and resolved,” he said. “And hopefully it will make the [Washington] team realize that the term is disparaging.”
The Native youth who filed the petition are:
• Jillian Pappan, 19, of Iowa; a member of the Native American Journalists Association and of the Omaha Tribe of Macy, Neb., a federally recognized American Indian tribe.
• Shquanebin Lone-Bentley, 19, of Virginia; a member of the National Congress of American Indians and the American Indian Society, and a citizen of the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Nation.
• Phillip Gover, 23, of Virginia; the former head of the Native American Student Union at the University of Virginia and an enrolled member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, a federally recognized American Indian tribe.
• Amanda Black Horse, 24, of Kansas; a member of Not in Our Honor, a student advocacy group aimed at protesting disparaging mascots, and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, a federally recognized American Indian tribe. She is also a former group leader for indigenous women at Women’s Transitional Care Services.
• Courtney Tsotigh, 18, of Oklahoma; an Oklahoma City University student, board member of the General Commission on Religion and Race, and an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, a federally recognized American Indian tribe.
• Marcus Briggs, 22, of Florida; a counselor for the Indian Youth of America, president of the Society of Native American Gentlemen at the University of Oklahoma and a recipient of numerous Native American Leadership Awards. He is Miccosukee and Muscogee, a member of the Creek Tribe of Florida.