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Justice Is Served


November 16, 2009 1:14 PM

Court declines to hear 'Redskins' issue

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The article on The Washington Post website this morning was short, perhaps a dozen or so paragraphs that didn't do anything more than what the headline did. And the headline did plenty in putting the words underneath it into context. 


The eight words in the headline read: "Supreme Court refuses to hear Redskins' naming case."


There, it's done. Native Americans have lost what might be the final fight in their efforts to strip the Washington Redskins of the trademark attached to the team's nickname.


That's no small matter, because if stripped of the trademark, the franchise would have jettisoned this disparaging nickname faster than a stripper peels off clothing. For the team would be unable to market the nickname exclusively, which would allow anybody else to peddle merchandise freely with the team's nickname and logo on it.


In essence, it would make no "cents," as in dollars and cents, for the NFL franchise to keep a nickname that had no commercial or marketing value, despite its public appeal.  


The U.S. Supreme Court made no comment, The Post article said, about its decision not to hear the case, which had wound its way through lower courts since 1992. It then landed in the high court's hands. 


Now what?



Not much, because the court of last resort has decided, loosely, to let the prior rulings stand, an affront to Native Americans and to anyone else who refuses to let debasing words translate into profits.


In what might be a sliver of hope for Native Americans, the court didn't consider whether the nickname itself was racist. The court based this decision not to hear the case on timing, a legal question that limits how long an aggrieved party has to file a lawsuit.   


The franchise has carried the nickname "Redskins" since 1937, and it registered the name for a trademark in 1967.


According to Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the plaintiffs, the term "Redskin" dates to the early days of the English colonies when bounties were paid to settlers to kill indigenous Americans. Their scalps, which were called "redskins," served as proof because of the difficulty in dragging an entire corpse in for payment.


Other sources argued that the term had a more benign root. It referred to skin color, serving as a physical indicator akin to "black" or "white." The Oxford English Dictionary cited uses of the term as early as 1587. 


And still another source narrowed this description. It claimed Europeans coined the term to describe Algonquins who painted "their face with bright red ocher and bloodroot," which left their faces reddened with war paint.


Against these conflicting backdrops, Harjo and others have long wondered how people could look at a term like "Redskins" and not consider it a slur on Native Americans, who contend the word is as obscene to them as the "the N-word" is to a black. 


They didn't file their first challenge to the term, however, until 1992, winning in front of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board but losing most of its legal fights in federal courts since.


They had counted on the Supreme Court to settle it all -- to at least open the debate on whether words such as "Redskins" have a place in an enlightened world. They counted on justice, if not necessarily political correctness.


There is no justice when a man's culture is debased, as it is whenever a pejorative term is given a legal crutch to stand on.

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