Since their name was changed in the 1930s, The Washington Redskins have faced backlash from Native American groups. After over 60 years of fighting, they finally took them to court. Find out what happened on this episode of NameChangers!
In 1932, the city of Boston was awarded an NFL franchise. They shared a stadium with a local Major League Baseball team, The Boston Braves, and decided to adopt their stadium mate’s name after a large series of losses and some changes behind the scenes the team moved the next year to Fenway Park with new stadium mates, the Boston Red Sox. The owner, George Marshall, decided to change their name in order to avoid confusion with the baseball team, wanted to stick with the Native American flare. So they decided on the Boston RedSkins. In 1937 after some terrible losses. they relocated to Marshalls hometown of Washington DC, the area they have stayed in ever since. In the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians, the NCAI, began holding protests to have the team change their name as it was offensive to their members, and those they represent. Little did they all know to this fight would continue for over 50 years. So, what happens when a name is potentially offensive?
I’m James Doherty and this is NameChangers.
So why did the team choose the name the Redskins? First, let’s look into the history of the word. In her 2004 book, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in the 18th Century North America, Nancy Shoemaker states, “At the start of the eighteenth-century, Indians and Europeans rarely mentioned the color of each other’s skins. By mid-century, remarks about skin color and the characterization of people’s by simple color-coded labels, red, white, black had become commonplace. “Redskin” soon became adapted by Europeans as a generic term to label all Native Americans.”
Much later, in the period between 1875 and 1933, three years prior to the name change, many books begin using the term as a derogatory term which caused dictionaries to insert a definition under Redskin of “usually offencive, disparaging, insulting and taboo.”
The coach at the time was a man named William Henry Dietz. Now Dietz claims he was of Sioux origin and went by the name “Lonestar”, Marshall claimed the name “the Redskins” had nothing to do with Dietz, however, some people from the team claimed the mascot was modeled after Dietz.
Okay, funny side story about Dietz. In 1916, he was the head coach of Washington State University, and a former neighbor relocated the West Coast. They learned that Dietz was posing as a Native American. They alerted the authorities, and the FBI found he had registered for the draft as a “non-citizen Indian” with an allotment meaning he was unable to be drafted. The borough found he had taken the identity of one James OneStar, and Agola man of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation 12 years his senior, who had recently disappeared into Cuba. He was tried in court, and ended up serving 30 days in prison in 1919. Then, he continued on his football coaching career, like nothing happened, eventually joining the Boston Redskins, continuing to claim his Sioux heritage.
But anyway, up until his death in 1969, Marshall doubled-down on the idea that the name celebrated Native American cultures. His successors also have used that story, but Native American groups weren’t buying it. In the late eighties and early nineties, they begin pushing even harder for government intervention, and eventually they started getting senators and lawyers on their side and finally, in 1992, they took them to court. The cases were long and harrowing. You have one side of activists trying to fight and you have another side of a giant NFL team that’s been around for decades with high-powered lawyers. The activist’s side had the argument that the name “Redskins” should not be allowed to be trademarkable under what is called the Lanham Act. Now, that was their bread and butter throughout the case. The Act was enacted in 1946 prohibiting a number of activities like trademark dilution, trademark infringement, and false advertising, but the piece that they’re specifically interested in is this:
“No trademark shall be refused registration unless it consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
Now a lot of critics say the language is a bit vague, but you could easily see how there’s an argument that a word the disparaging to a group should not be able to be trademark, such as Redskins. And in 1999, after years of fighting it out in the courts, the judge agreed with them, this does violate the Lanham Act.
But finally in 2014, after years and years of appeals and refilings, the team lost their trademarks. Now, what does this mean? So, if you lose a trademark you can still use the name, however, you don’t have them many protection.s If there’s any counterfeit merchandise, they’re going to have a hard time fighting it. If somebody else decides they just want to use the name on their product without trademarking it they can do that. The team can try to fight it but it’s going to be a lot of time and money and there’s a possibility they’re going to lose. Now, the team does have the ability to keep using the name, and they decided that they want to, and they’re allowed to sell t-shirts and hats with the name on it like nothing’s changed. But the Redskins aren’t done fighting. They’re still going back and trying to get it changed and recently a Supreme Court decision might have helped them in their effort.
We’ll find out about that on the next episode.
NameChangers is made in association with NameStormers, a naming agency in Austin, TX. Find out more about them at NameStormers.com. Very special thanks this week to Christopher Roden. If you like the show, please like and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, it really helps people find us. I’m James Dohery, we’ll see you next time.