Tribal attorneys file brief against NFL team

Brief: Navajo Nation's elected, appointed and traditional leaders present "unified opposition" to Washington Redskins name

Noel Lyn Smith
A Washington Redskins football team staff member wheels a bucket of helmets off the field on Aug. 4, 2012, after a practice at NFL football training camp at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va.

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation has filed a brief in support of upholding the cancellation of the Washington Redskins trademark held by Pro-Football Inc.

Last week, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court" brief, in support of Amanda Blackhorse, who is the lead defendant in the trademark case and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.

The brief urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., to affirm the cancellation of the trademark held by Pro-Football Inc., the corporate entity that operates the Washington, D.C., team.

In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the trademark based on evidence the name is disparaging to Native Americans.

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia affirmed the board's ruling in July 2015 and ordered the cancellation of the team’s federal trademark registrations.

Pro-Football Inc. filed its appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2015.

The Navajo Nation filed its brief because Pro-Football Inc. and its amicus curiae briefs suggest the tribe and individual tribal members do not find the team name disparaging.

“In fact, the nation’s view is quite the opposite,” the tribe's brief states.

The brief states that although former chairman Peter McDonald is named as supporting Pro-Football Inc., he is only one of more than 300,000 enrolled tribal members.

“He speaks on his own behalf, and his view is not reflective of the nation or of its citizens in general,” the brief states.

The Washington Redskins logo is seen on the field before an NFL football preseason game in Landover, Md., on Aug. 7, 2014.

The brief goes on to state that the tribe's elected, appointed and traditional leaders speak for the Navajo people and present "unified opposition" to the team name because it is disparaging and has a negative psychological effect on tribal members.

The brief refers to a 2014 resolution the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee passed that stated the tribe’s official view, which "opposes the use of the terms ‘redskin’ and ‘redskins’ and other disparaging epithets and references to Native Americans in professional sports franchises.”

Terms like these impact the psychological well-being of tribal members, especially the youth, and this concern is supported by the American Psychological Association, which has identified the use of Native American mascots as having a negative effect on self-esteem, the brief states.

It further states that the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee includes the 24 tribal council delegates, and when the federal court issued its 2015 decision, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called the ruling “a victory for all of Indian Country” in a press release from his office.

Even members of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission view the team name as “disparaging” and “in violation” of human rights. In addition, the commission approved a resolution in March 2014 opposing the name.

Washington Redskins helmets are shown Oct. 21, 2012, during the first half of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J.

The brief also lists a resolution in opposition to the team name the Diné Medicine Men’s Association passed in November 2013.

These actions demonstrate the tribe "has firmly expressed the views of a substantial composite of its members that Pro-Football Inc.'s trademark is disparaging," according to the brief.

The brief does touch on the issue of the name "Redskins" being used as a mascot by Red Mesa High School in Red Mesa, Ariz., stating the school is public and is not created or sanctioned by the tribal government.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.