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Meet the Navajo Activist Who Got the Washington R-dsk-ns’ Trademark Revoked: Amanda Blackhorse

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The growing movement to change the name of the Washington R-dsk-ns football team has scored a surprising victory. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the team’s trademark registration after concluding its name and logo are disparaging to Native Americans. The decision does not force the team to change its name, but it could make it more difficult to legally guard the name and logo from use by third parties. The team can reportedly keep the trademark while they appeal. But Native Americans and other critics of the R-dsk-ns’ brand have hailed the ruling as the latest sign team owner Dan Snyder will inevitably be forced to drop it. We are joined by two guests: Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo activist and plaintiff in the case, and sportswriter Dave Zirin.

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StoryNov 08, 2013Change the Mascot: Pressure Grows for NFL Team to Drop R-dsk-ns Name and Logo as Thousands Protest
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The growing movement to change the name of the Washington R-dsk-ns football team has scored a surprising victory. On Wednesday, a federal agency canceled the team’s trademark registration after concluding its name and logo are disparaging to Native Americans. The decision, issued by an arm of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, does not force the team to change its name but could make it more difficult to legally guard the name and logo from use by third parties.

AMY GOODMAN: The team can reportedly keep the trademark while they appeal, but Native Americans and other critics of the R-dsk-ns’ brand have hailed the ruling as the latest sign team owner Dan Snyder will inevitably be forced to drop it. Among those celebrating Wednesday’s ruling were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and, before him, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.

SEN. MARIA CANTWELL: Madam President, I come to the floor because the Patent Office has just ruled that the name of the Washington football team is not patentable because it is a slur. So we’re so excited to know that finally people are recognizing that this issue can no longer be a business case for the NFL to use this patent.

MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID: This is extremely important to Native Americans all over the country that they no longer use this name. It’s racist. Daniel Snyder says it’s about tradition. I ask, what tradition? A tradition of racism is all that that name leaves in its wake. The writing is on the wall. It’s on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights.

AMY GOODMAN: Senators Reid and Cantwell were among the more than 50 senators who signed a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month urging him to push the R-dsk-ns to change their name.

The legal case that triumphed Wednesday was filed in 2006 by a group of young Native Americans after a similar case was overturned on appeal. In that earlier case, a federal court found the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their case. Well, one of the plaintiffs in the latest case joins us now. Amanda Blackhorse is a social worker and member of the Navajo Nation, who joins us from Kayenta, Arizona, which is in the Navajo Nation. And sportswriter Dave Zirin joins us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he’s covering the World Cup.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! But let’s begin with Amanda Blackhorse. Talk about the significance of this patent case.

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: Good morning, and thank you for having me.

The significance, I mean, this is such a huge victory not only for, you know, our group, but for Native Americans all over the nation, and as well as, you know, our supporters. We have a tremendous amount of supporters who are non-Native, as well, and this is just a huge victory for us. I think—you know, I know that the cancellation of the trademark does not mean that the team has to change their name. I think our biggest thing with this is that, you know, their name, the “R” word, does not deserve federal protection. And we would like to make that known to the team. And also, you know, we don’t think that Dan Snyder and the co-owners should make money off of a racial slur, especially a racial slur directed at Native American people. And so, this is a huge victory for us. I do know that, you know, the team is going to appeal, and we are ready for that. You know, we’ve been through this process for eight years now. We will continue to fight. And, you know, this is not the end for us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amanda Blackhorse, an attorney for the RR-dsk-ns released a statement in response to the decision, saying, quote, “We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the R-dsk-ns name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.” Now, the reference there was that there had been a prior case, as we mentioned in the lead-in to this story. Could you talk about that prior case and what happened there? Because most sports fans are surprised by the ruling, but this has been a long process of litigation on this issue.

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: Absolutely. Suzan Harjo, who is sort of the person who has been pushing this for all these years, she filed her case, along with other petitioners, in 1992. They won their case under the TTAB in 1999. Pro Football came back and appealed that case, and they won based on laches, stating that, you know, like Amy said, the petitioners waited too long to file their case, and so—or they were too old at the time that they filed their case. So, in our case, we—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Too old? Too old? What do they mean by that?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Too old? What do they mean by that?

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: That they should have filed at the—when they became adults, that they waited too long to file their case. So, with our case, you know, each of us were between the ages of 18 and 24. So, if they appeal, we are not barred by laches, so they cannot say that we waited too long. We were—we had just become adults at that time. So that’s kind of the big difference for us in our case.

AMY GOODMAN: Amanda, the case bears your name; it’s Blackhorse v. Pro Football. Why does the name of the R-dsk-ns team in Washington, D.C., affect you, bother you, hurt you so much?

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: Well, first and foremost, the name is a textbook definition—it’s a—the textbook definition of the word is a racial slur, and it’s a disparaging name towards Native American people. And, you know, in my community, we don’t call each other by the “R” word. I have never heard another Native American person call another Native American person by the “R” word. It’s just not something that we do. We have other names, like Native American, American Indian, or even Indian, but we never call each other by the “R” word.

And so, you know, the name itself actually dates back, you know, at the time when the Native American population was being exterminated, and bounty hunters were hired to kill Native American people. And so, you know, one could make a great living off of just killing Native American people. And there was a tier effect that was paid out. You know, the highest paid was for a Native American man and then a woman and then a child. And so, based off of that, there were news clippings and flyers and stuff that were posted up, asking people to go out to kill Indians and bring back the red skin. So, in order to show that they made their kill, they had to bring back a scalp or their skin. And so, that’s where the R-dsk-ns word has been kind of passed down. So, in our community, we do not use that word.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Dave Zirin, the writer and sports analyst. The R-dsk-ns and their owner, Dan Snyder, have really battled this, and he continues to insist that he will not change the name. Could you talk about Snyder and his role within the National Football League hierarchy of owners?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Dan Snyder has a kind of dual position in the hierarchy of NFL owners in that he is not someone with a lot of friends among NFL ownership, precisely because his personality is so abrasive. And frankly, his abrasive personality, the fact that he’s everything short of somebody twirling his mustache as he insists that the name will never change, his belligerence is one of the things that I think has fueled the movement to actually change the Washington football team name.

Yet at the same time, the Washington football team brand is one of the most powerful in all of the NFL. And that’s what’s so important about this case that we have to remember, is that 31 of the 32 NFL teams, every team except the Dallas Cowboys, they pool their merchandise money and then divide them equally. And the Washington football team is responsible for a very big slice of that pie. So if the trademark is removed and all of a sudden the market is flooded with bootleg gear, that actually cuts into the profits of other NFL owners and creates a new arena of pressure on Dan Snyder to change this name, beyond indigenous activists, beyond senators, beyond sportswriters who refuse to use the name. But it creates an avenue of other owners who are now saying, “Wait a minute, we don’t really care about racism or not racism; what we do care about is the color green. So it’s not R-dsk-ns, but greenbacks. And the greenbacks in our wallet are hurting right now, so, Dan Snyder, you need to get on it and change the name.”

AMY GOODMAN: Amanda Blackhorse, if you can talk about what you think reporters should do? Yesterday, William Rhoden was on television, New York Times reporter, saying that reporters should also just refer to, quote, “the team” and not use that word.

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: I think that’s also very important, our language that we use. I’ve used the term, you know, to describe what I’m talking about, but I don’t freely use the word in a day-to-day basis. You know, if I want to let someone know what exactly I’m talking about, then I will use it. But I do appreciate the press, you know, who have decided to not print the word anymore because it is a racial slur. There are people who are making complaints to the FCC, as well, when they do hear the word on air.

And so, I think it’s very important that we start moving towards that—in that direction, because I think that we live in a culture now where we are so desensitized to some of these things that we don’t even think about it without—you know, when we’re saying a racial slur, and that we won’t—we need to—you know, that’s kind of one of the things that we’ve been doing, is educating people on the term, because people think it’s just, you know, a red—describing a group of people, and they don’t understand the history behind the word. But you wouldn’t call someone by their color. You know, you don’t call people whiteskin or yellowskin or blackskin or brownskin. It’s just not something that is socially acceptable. So why is it OK for this to happen?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about the other names of the teams—the Seminoles, the Braves, the Indians, the Blackhawks—and, you know, it goes on—the Indians?

AMANDA BLACKHORSE: Oh, yes. I think the Indians, the Cleveland Indians, their name—or their logo is one of the most racist logos I have ever seen. That is not the way Native American people look, and that is definitely not the way our Native American men look. It is very offensive, and it needs to go. And I think the team understands that at this point, that it is offensive, because they won’t print—you know, they won’t use that logo when they’re in Arizona or, you know, in certain places. So I think they’re kind of moving in that direction.

But other teams—you know, the Braves, the Chiefs, the Blackhawks—you know, someone explained this to me one time. A mascot is meant to be ridiculed. A mascot is there so people can push it around. It can be brave, it can be stoic, but it could also be something that you can put down. And so, when you put a Native American image in that position, then you’re opening up for a whole slew of, you know, different stereotypes to be directed at Native American people.

And so, I think what people don’t understand is what happens at these games. You know, you go into a game, and you see just—you know, it’s horrible. You know, you see people wearing a red face. You see people wearing fake feathers in their hair, mocking the headdress. You see people with war paint, doing the tomahawk chop and, you know, saying, “Scalp him.” It’s very offensive. And I think when you have a Native American mascot for a team, you know, you have no control over what happens in that stadium. There’s a lot of things that are very negative towards Native American people that happen in that stadium. So I just don’t agree that we should have Native American mascots. It’s too—there’s a fine line there, and you can’t separate the two.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Dave Zirin, Dave, do you see any parallels or lessons from the way the NBA handled the recent scandal over the L.A. Clippers and their owner versus how the NFL is handling Snyder’s battle?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, not only are there parallels, I thought the NBA actually performed a shot across the bow, if you will, at the NFL by airing a commercial against the Washington team name, that incredibly powerful commercial that was funded by an indigenous tribe from the West Coast that spoke about, you know, “There are many things that we call ourselves; this is not one of them,” and then they showed the helmet—the NBA actually trying to draw a sharp contrast with the NFL in terms of how they deal with racial issues.

And frankly, that’s what people were saying on social media as soon as Donald Sterling was given the boot. It’s like, why is this racism OK, and this racism not OK? And when you peeled that back, that’s where this gets really ugly, because why do we allow a slur against Native Americans, but we don’t allow slurs against other ethnicities? And it’s rooted in the realities of genocide and displacement. And if you need genocide or displacement to have a team name, then you probably need a new team name.

I mean, I was here in—I’m here in Brazil. And when we heard the news about the Washington trademark team, I was hanging out with some indigenous organizers, and they were high-fiving me, and they were very excited, not because they care about the NFL at all, but because just the fight is always, for indigenous people, for visibility, to be seen, to be noticed. And that’s the same in Brazil as in the United States, as throughout Latin America. That’s always the challenge, is just to say, “Hey, we are here. We are a living people, and we demand our rights.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, we have to break, but we want you to stay with us, because we want to talk about the World Cup. Amanda Blackhorse in Kayenta, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, thank you so much for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this story. The case, of course, is Blackhorse v. Pro Football. Thanks, Amanda. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Dave Zirin in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the World Cup in a moment.

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