Earlier today, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office cancelled the federal trademarks for the Washington Redskins after ruling that the name was “disparaging to Native Americans.” And the woman to thank for this tremendous victory over a powerful NFL team and its owners is Suzan Harjo, a 69-year-old grandmother and Native American activist who has been waging this fight since 1992. ”Native American people have been fighting this since 1972,” Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five Native American plaintiffs in the case filed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, told Business Insider. ”The reason it has come up recently is because Suzan has worked really hard to bring this in the public eye.”
According to Harjo, Native American activists who have been fighting to eliminate Native American mascots — on the grounds that they are racist, because they are — always viewed the Redskins name as the most egregious example, as “the r-word” is considered to be the most offensive thing you can call a Native person. There was also the issue of the Redskins’ prominence and location in the nation’s capital. ”No matter where you went or what was the mascot fight of the moment in any locale, everyone would always say, ‘And the worst one is right there in the nation’s capital, the Washington team name,’” said Harjo. “It was the worst one, everyone pointed to it.”
In the interview with Business Insider, Harjo said that when she and her husband moved to Washington, they were given tickets to a Redskins’ game and as football fans, decided to go. Their experience was not pleasant. ”We didn’t stay for the game at all, because people started – someone said something, ‘Are you this or that?’ So, we started to answer, then people started like pulling our hair,” explained Harjo. “And they would call us that name and it was very weird for us. So, we just left and never went to another game.” Seeing the connection firsthand between the offensive team name and the way fans objectified her as a Native person “solidified” Harjo’s belief in the importance of this fight against Native American mascots.
“That just solidified it for me because it wasn’t just namecalling, it was what the name had promoted,” Harjo said, who has received death threats because of her case. “That’s the example of what objectification is. You strip the person of humanity and they’re just an object and you can do anything. You can pull their hair! I wouldn’t even touch someone else!”
In 1992, with the guidance of a lawyer name Stephen Baird, Harjo brought a case to the Patent and Trademark Office with herself as the plaintiff in 1992, with the objective of getting the trademark “canceled” based on a section of the U.S. Trademark Act prohibiting trademarks that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” In 1999, she was victorious, but the Redskins appealed and the judge on the case — a fan of the team, BTW — ruled in their favor based on what Harjo called a technicality, saying she was “too old” to be the plaintiff. Seriously?
Harjo wasn’t about to back down though. Over the next few years, she recruited five young Native American activists, including Blackhorse, who could serve as plaintiffs in a new case based on the same grounds. And finally, today, their efforts were victorious. The U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office’s ruling does not force the team to change their name, but it does allow anyone to sell Redskins merchandise, which puts financial pressure on the team’s owner to rebrand and trademark a new name for the team. Ultimately, this case sets a precedent for future trademark cases, which Harjo believes will lead to the elimination of even more offensive mascot names. Look out, Cleveland Indians.
“I have had the privilege of being the kind of the face of this fight,” Harjo told Business Insider. “But I stand for lots and lots of people who are either vocal about it, or who want to be a part of it, or who are a part of it. This is not a small group of people. Now, it’s their fight. … We’ve said now is the time for everyone to just jump into this so that it’s not on the backs of a few people, especially a few young Native people.”