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Supreme Court drops the ball on Redskins suit

A 17-year effort to end the use of the Washington Redskins’ name hit a stone wall Nov. 16 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit over the NFL team’s name and trademark.

Four justices needed to vote to hear the case for it to be heard. By declining the case, the Supreme Court let stand an earlier federal appeals court ruling that said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had waited too long to file the suit.

The high court’s decision, which it made with no comment, struck a serious blow to efforts to end the team’s use of the name Redskins.

It was an anti-climactic and frustrating end to a lawsuit that had come to represent for many in Indian country the most visible and persistent effort by a sports team to continue its use of an offensive Indian team name and mascot.

It was an anti-climactic and frustrating end to a lawsuit that had come to represent for many in Indian country the most visible and persistent effort by a sports team to continue its use of an offensive Indian team name and mascot.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs – including lead plaintiff Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee – had argued that U.S. trademark law does not protect such racist names.

The term “redskins” actually refers to the Indian skins and body parts that bounty hunters had to show in order to receive payment for killing Indians, the National Congress of American Indians argued in a brief filed before the high court.

“The organizations and Indian tribes stand together to express with one voice their collective opinion on the fundamental fact underlying this case: the ‘Redskins’ trademark is disparaging to Native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as ‘blood-thirsty savages,’ ‘noble warriors,’ and an ethnic group ‘frozen in history,’” NCAI argued in court papers.

It’s hard to imagine any other ethnic peoples in this great country failing to retire such a patently racist name as “Redskins.”

Perhaps the high court’s decision is a reflection of its decidedly conservative make-up. Perhaps it is simply a knee-jerk reaction to a lawsuit that some have considered political correctness run amok.

Certainly, officials with the Washington football team have long maintained that the name is meant to honor the proud heritage of Native Americans.

But good intentions offer little solace as generations of Native people have been forced to watch their cultural symbols – the sacred headdress, drum and eagle feathers – donned like so much Halloween attire amid the war whoops and chanting of frenzied football fans.

It’s a disappointing setback for Indian people during a year that has seen so much progress in Indian and white relations. But it also may not be the end of the road for efforts to end the team’s name.

A group of six younger Indian plaintiffs filed a similar claim, Blackhorse v. Pro Football, two years ago, but their case had been put on hold until this lawsuit could be resolved.

And it is with this yet unresolved lawsuit that Indian people could eventually come to appreciate the Supreme Court’s decision to remain silent on whether the name is offensive or not.

Because it may be within that silence that Indian activists could find room and even further public support to force the high court to decide the matter based on the merit of the team’s name rather than on technicalities.

We hope the justices’ silence on the matter is just such an invitation.