A special three-judge panel heard arguments on Thursday over whether the Washington Redskins should be allowed to keep trademark protection for their name. Federal rules generally disallow trademarks which disparage ethnic groups.
Attorneys (and the general manager of the team) believe the term "Redskin" is not insulting. Some Native Americans disagree vehemently.
Suzan Shown Harjo, descended from the Cheyenne and Muscogee tribes, said the word Redskin is "the worst thing we can be called in the English language … [a reminder of the] days we were skinned and the days we were scalped."
Harjo was a plaintiff in an earlier case, which was ultimately dismissed on a technicality.
Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who lives in Phoenix, is a current plaintiff.
"I'm going to do what I think is right," declared Blackhorse outside the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. "And I'm doing this because of my people and I'm also doing this for my children, for my tribe."
Before a three-judge trademark panel, the plaintiff's attorney, Jesse Witten, said the word is an "ethnic slur, an epithet," and has been so for a long time, citing a 1949 essay which described Redskins -- as a group -- of "low-brow people with few ideas."
Defense attorney Robert Raskopf countered by reminding the panel that over the decades, dozens of dictionaries of defined Redskin as simply "Native American".
The case may turn on whether the term was offensive to a significant segment of Native Americans at the various times it was registered with the government.
After the 90 minutes of arguments, the team's general manager was asked by reporters if owner Dan Snyder has ever discussed changing the team name.
"No," replied Bruce Allen. "We're proud of our history, and we're proud of where we're taking the franchise, and we want to protect the franchise and this game of football and the fans and the players and the coaches for decades from now."
Even if the Redskins lose before the panel of trademark judges, the team could appeal to federal court. And even if they lost there, the team cannot be compelled to change its name. The football team would simply lose federal trademark protections.
Knowledgeable observers say federal trademark judges typically take months before rendering a decision.