Washington Redskins Issue Gets Native Americans Off the Sidelines

Last week, the Washington Redskins had six of their team logo trademarks revoked by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which called the organization’s name “disparaging to Native Americans.”

This isn’t the first time the NFL team has been under fire for having a racially insensitive name, and owner Dan Snyder said he will appeal the action just as he did in 1999. Team attorney Bob Raskopf said in a statement: “The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than 10 years ago. We expect the same ultimate outcome here.”

Supporters of the change hope that 10 years has been enough time to change how culture — and therefore the courts — view the terminology and its impact on minorities.

“It’s taken a long time to move the argument from something that people thought was a little over-the-top but just a nickname to getting people to see it does have an impact,” said Mike Streeter, president and executive director of the Workforce Diversity Network, a professional association that promotes diversity.

Apart from time period and cultural mindset, what also separates this case from the one in 1999 is government involvement, Streeter said. In May 50 senators wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to get the franchise to change its name. The motion garnered enough media attention to kick off a national conversation.

“This has elevated into a national discussion in a way it hasn’t before because they’re directly going after the copyright and image of the organization,” Streeter said. “I don’t think that’s been done in the past. The other changes have been power of public opinion [and] organized individuals.”

But talk isn’t enough.

“Instead of the typical tap-dancing, it’s going to take actually looking at it for what it is, which is racism,” said Herb Stevenson, CEO of business and leadership development firm Cleveland Consulting Group.

Stevenson, who also goes by the name One White Horse Standing, is an active member in the Native American community. As a specialist in executive development and global training, he’s aware that his race is continually forgotten in conversations of diversity and inclusion, even at the corporate level.

“You’re almost doing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ around Native Americans,” he said. “If we’re not even named as a group within the process, how is that going to change?”

Why are Native Americans so absent from the conversation? Stevenson said it’s because Americans are hesitant to acknowledge how the founders of the country appropriated the land from native tribes who had been here long before the Pilgrims and went on to infect them with smallpox, force them on the deadly Trail of Tears migration and to this day use their images to promote our professional sports teams in Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington.

That avoidance of acknowledgement has led to Native American minorities becoming comfortable with the Redskin representation because it means someone is recognizing they exist, albeit in a racist way. “If you’re treated as a nonentity and you’re at least getting some awareness that you exist and have a right to exist, even in a negative way, it feels good,” Stevenson said.

But even if the Redskins are refused their trademark, it won’t necessarily mean a touchdown for Native American equality. Stevenson said if the team changes the logo, it will be so it can continue profiting off newly trademarked memorabilia, not because its leaders want to change their ways. Both he and Streeter said the entire situation revolves around money, not diversity and inclusion.

“That’s unfortunately how our capitalism works,” Stevenson said. “We follow the money, and that’s how you get social change.”

Kate Everson is an associate editor at Diversity Executive. She can be reached at keverson@diversity-executive.com.