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Washington Chief-Making and the R-Word

The owner of the Washington football club is working his legal team and press flacks overtime, scouting Indian country for anyone who is Indian or "part-Indian" and likes the team's name.

They say the R-word honors Native Americans. When a Native person says it doesn't, they say, "Shut up!"

The team's owners have been most disrespectful to the seven of us who sued them in 1992. In the litigation documents before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, we were called "radicals" and "militants."

The national Indian organizations that filed a brief supporting us - National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, National Indian Youth Council and the Native American Rights Fund ? were called our "amici cohorts."

By engaging in direct and gratuitous name-calling in the legal proceedings, the football club made our points for us about public slurs and objectification.

That, plus voluminous evidence about the meaning and use of the R-word and how most Native Americans despise it, convinced the three judges that the team's name was disparaging and held us up to contempt and ridicule.

The judges ruled unanimously in 1999 to cancel the team's trademark licenses. First issued in 1967, the licenses granted the team's owners the federally-protected privilege of making money exclusively from the epithet. The judges agreed with us that the R-word never was an honorific and is not one now, and the federal government should not continue to support it.

The current owner of the club, Daniel M. Snyder, appealed our victory and is asking the federal district court to throw out the pertinent section of the trademark law because it is constitutionally vague. He might benefit from reading the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, which defines the R-word as, "Offensive Slang. Used as a disparaging term for a Native American."

I wrote to Snyder after the trademark decision, asking him to meet with me and the other plaintiffs, even without attorneys, if he preferred. He never answered our letter, but responded by appealing the decision.

Heads of the leading national Indian organizations - whose members are tribal governments, educators, attorneys, journalists, youth, artists and other Native Peoples - wrote to the head of the National Football League, asking for a name change and no appeal. The NFL, which bankrolled the other side's litigation costs, was as discourteous as Snyder and never responded to any of the Indian leaders.

Snyder's lawyers were dispatched to Indian country to find relatives of Lone Star Dietz, the team's long ago assistant coach. Team mythology has it that George Preston Marshall (the team's owner who was infamous for his racism) named the team after Dietz.

In 1933, whenever newspapers or movies wanted to use the worst slur for Indians, they used the R-word, so that must have been some kind of honor.

Dietz had a Sioux mother, but was raised by his German father's family, far to the east of Sioux country. His first contact with Indians was in his late teens at the federal boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the motto was "Kill the Indian, Save the Man."

In the summer of 1999, Snyder's lawyers trekked out to South Dakota in a modern-day version of the white man trading trinkets for Manhattan. The chief-makers gave away jerseys, jackets and hats sporting the team's name and asked for signatures on a paper saying the R-word is an honor.

One Rosebud Sioux man told me that his family "took the clothes for the children, but I didn't sign their paper and they went away with long faces."

The time-dishonored practice of chief-making came about when the Europeans wanted land and other valuables that belonged to Native Peoples. They looked past the Native men and women who had "no" written all over their faces, settling on the eager-to-please with a ready thumbprint for signing away the property and rights of others.

The Washington football club has a long history of chief-making. While disrespecting and trying to ignore the overwhelming majority of Native Americans who want the team's name dropped, the team's owners have come up with fewer than a dozen Indians who support their position in litigation.

The late owner Jack Kent Cooke favored Princess Pale Moon, who sang the national anthem before some games in his day. She claims to be Ojibwe and Cherokee, but they do not claim her, and the team's lawyers decided not to advance her as an Indian or a voice of any kind for their case. From time to time, her husband and their "Indian heritage" group attack Native people who oppose the team's name.

John Kent Cooke, the elder Cooke's son and successor owner, testified that he met an Indian once. He could not remember if the Indian was a man or a woman and did not know his or her name, but he thought he or she sold him a pot on the side of a road somewhere.

Lawyers for the Cookes came up with a few letters they claimed were from tribal chiefs, but they never produced any Indian witnesses. Most of the letter-writers said they liked the team's name and wanted some of its money. Two of their chiefs were turned out of office and convicted of felonies, one in connection with missing tribal money and the other as a sexual predator.

Snyder may or may not know Indians or honor any by calling them the R-word to their faces. His lawyers are fighting like crazy to keep him from revealing any information or views on anything in the federal district court case and have asked the judge to protect him from being deposed.

In the meantime, Snyder's team has come up with another handful of Indians and is circulating their letters to friendly journalists. One surfaced in a Jan. 26 column by Marc Fisher in the Washington Post: Walter "Blackie" Wetzel was quoted as saying the team's name is opposed by "only a small group of radicals."

Wetzel, a Blackfeet senior, was identified in the column as an NCAI president in the 1960s, conveying the misimpression that NCAI supported the team's name then or now.

One of the Native people who brought our lawsuit was executive director of NCAI in the 1960s, Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), who is a lawyer, a retired college professor and author of two dozen books. I was NCAI's executive director in the 1980s. NCAI officials testified in the 1990s that the organization opposed the team's name in the 1960s and thereafter.

The column did not identify Wetzel as part of "Republican Indians for Nixon" or as brother-in-law to CIA operative, White House plumber and convicted Watergate felon Howard Hunt. Now, that's the interesting story, but not the one that serves the Washington chief-makers.

The mention of Wetzel in the column prompted writer Hank Adams (Assiniboine & Sioux) to ask: "Might not the team change its name to the Washington Burglars, Washington Plumbers or the Washington Blackies?"

The latest story is that the team's name comes from a tradition of Plains Indians painting their bodies red before going into battle. They never raised this particular fiction during the course of litigation, which is now in its tenth year.

Paints of many colors are used in Native ceremonies of all kinds, mostly sparingly. Warriors of Plains nations do not customarily cover themselves in red paint before battle. It is, however, a custom among many Native Peoples in North America to paint bodies in red or yellow ochre as a preparation for burial.

No doubt there is a "chief" in the making, if not in the wings, ready to swear the Washington myths are true and to condemn the "radicals" who stick to tradition.